By Suzannah Brecknell

30 Jun 2017

As the new apprenticeships system gets into full swing, Suzannah Brecknell meets Peter Lauener, the man charged with setting up the institute which will put employers front and centre

Peter Lauener, photographed by Photoshot

Tucked in the heart of Pimlico sits a restaurant called the Vincent Rooms. With white tablecloths, sparkling tableware and elegant plates of food, it looks at first like any other smart lunch-spot around Westminster. But the restaurant is staffed entirely by trainees – all the chefs and front of house staff are studying at the Westminster Kingsway College, hoping one day to follow in the footsteps of alumni such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.

The college’s catering school has a long pedigree. It was founded in 1910 at the behest of London’s hospitality sector, whose leaders had spotted a lack of trained men to work in their hotels. Auguste Escoffier – the famous chef and restaurateur – was on the board, advising on the course content and often visiting the school to encourage pupils. It was exactly the sort of initiative which the government is today trying to create through its apprenticeships policy: tailored to local labour market requirements, shaped by employers and offering good quality training for a skilled job.


There a several ways in which government is putting employers in charge of apprenticeships policy. Firstly, since April this year, all large employers have been paying an apprenticeship levy based on the size of their pay bill. Government returns some of this to them as apprenticeship fund, which they can use to finance training for their apprentices, whether by providing it themselves or by choosing from a range of registered providers.

Employers – or rather, their representatives on 15 sector-specific panels – will also be designing new apprenticeship standards: deciding what knowledge, skills and behaviours are needed for every occupation in England. Training providers will then have to meet these standards if they want their courses to be eligible for government funding. At the heart of all this is a new body, the Institute for Apprenticeships – launched formally in April 2017 though it has been operating in shadow form since 2016. It has been charged with overseeing the process of approving new standards and will also, through its 15  sector panels, advise the government on funding levels for different standards

But its chief executive, Peter Lauener, has broader ambitions for the organisation. “The institute has got to, as it were, own the brand of apprenticeships,” he says. “To champion the cause of apprenticeships, and, in particular, champion the cause of quality in apprenticeships.”

Lauener is well-placed for this kind of cheerleading. He has worked on further and vocational education in a number of guises during his career, starting at the Manpower Services Commission as a young civil servant in the 1970s. He later said of his time at this agency: “It was a terrifically exciting place to work…for the first time, a whole raft of young people who had not had the opportunities at school were getting structured work-based training…there was this feeling that anything was possible and you could change society and make a difference.”

He continued to work on education policy – particularly funding – when the MSC was closed, and later set up the Young People’s Learning Agency. Currently, he is not only the chief executive of the IfA, but also of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, having overseen the merger of two funding agencies which created the latter body.

How has he coped with holding all these roles at once? “I suppose it begs the question whether I have coped,” he replies with a smile, before explaining that he has relied on the team of senior staff around him. “Any leader that thinks they can do it all is always deluding themselves, so it's about working through others,” he says.

“Secondly it’s about working out – and this is the other side of that coin – what is the contribution that [only] you can make as a leader to the organisation. Maybe in the institute I've been able to make a contribution with some of the external partners: because of the knowledge and history I've got in working with apprenticeships, I've been able to land some of those connections and also give some of the context for the work that we're doing now.”

This assessment of his connections in the sector is borne out by the reaction of industry bodies when Lauener’s imminent retirement was announced earlier this year. The Association of Colleges described him as a “true champion of further education”, while the Association for School and College Leaders thanked him for “sterling service, working for the benefit of young people in a number of government agencies.”

With his long perspective, does he think that we are reaching a tipping point where apprenticeships can be seen as an equally prestigious career path to university education?

The IfA chief answers with a bit of his family history. Despite winning scholarships at school, Lauener’s father was unable to go to university because his parents could not afford to send him. Instead, he took a job in an actuarial firm and trained as an actuary over many years of evening study.

"This was the way that a lot of people at that time entered the professions. Finance, banking, actuarial accounting, architecture: all those professions were generally entered through that evening class training,” Lauener says.

As higher education expanded in the 1960s, many of these professions became, as he puts it, “graduatised”. Government said it would pay universities to start more places, so they began putting on courses in actuarial science, accounting, architecture, and so on.

"Employers looked at that and said: ‘Well, we used to pay for all that, but if the government's going to pay through universities then we'll just get graduates and polish them up a bit," says Lauener

Push forward another 50 years and, he argues, we're seeing not just the return of employer-led training, but the re-introduction of degree and higher education apprenticeships. These offer a route into desirable professions so that apprenticeships are becoming a first choice for many young people.

But getting those apprenticeships right, so they provide meaningful opportunities for employees and useful skills for employers, will be crucial to securing this shift in public perceptions.

The Institute for Apprenticeships plays an important part here, but it is not the only organisation involved with quality assurance. Ofsted, Ofqual, the Education & Skills Funding Agency, HEFCE and the Quality Assurance Agency all have a role in monitoring and enforcing standards for apprenticeships.

It wouldn’t be possible or desirable to bring all these bodies together formally, Lauener says, because they have “an overlapping, interlocking set of responsibilities”. Instead, education secretary Justine Greening has instead asked the institute to ensure they are all working in sync.

The IfA has set up a “quality alliance” which brings together these bodies as well as providers of apprenticeship training. Its first task – at the request of the IfA board – is to develop a quality statement setting out a shared vision across the alliance. From this, Lauener hopes, will flow a broader strategy that each organisation can adopt to ensure it is working in step with the others.

The IfA is also charged with ensuring that new standards for apprenticeship courses meet the needs of employers across the country. Before the institute was set up, ministers had the final sign-off on apprenticeship standards. But, Lauener says, “and all of those ministers said: ‘Well I don't know, I’m  not the expert on this particular occupation’ – so they were just signing a process".

Now the institute is a conduit for employers to both design and sign-off apprenticeship standards, and Lauener wants to be clear that this done without input from ministers. It is “absolutely employer-led”, he says, from its legal status (it is a separate legal entity from the education department) to its governance structure (its board is made up of employer representatives) and the many sector-facing panels which will feed into its work.

He is being careful to say “employers” rather than “businesses”, he adds, because it’s important to recognise the role of public sector organisations in promoting and providing apprenticeships. “It was quite difficult to make apprenticeships work in the public sector 10 or 15 years ago,” he says, but the growing range of standards on offer means that these days, public sector employers can more easily set up schemes which will meet their own skills needs.

The government now has a target that apprentices should make up 2.3% of the workforce for public sector employers. And, Lauener says, “there’s every sign in central government that that will land very well."

“There are apprentice standards in finance, accounting and digital as well as the more traditional business admin areas, so people can see how that relates into the civil service of the future.”

To his fellow senior civil servants reading CSW, he has a challenge: “Have they thought properly about the role that apprenticeships can play in recruitment and in developing the skills of their existing workforce?”

“Every part of the civil service is going to be paying the levy,” he continues, “and they should all be making arrangements to register on the digital apprenticeship service; they can then use the service to plan their recruitment. [On that platform], they can see all the providers that are able to deliver what they are interested in – get going!”

Although the institute is legally and organisationally employer-led, Lauener seems conscious that it will still need to establish its reputation to really ensure employers are engaging positively with it. So, he wants the institute to build an excellent reputation for managing processes well, and be good at communicating with stakeholders across the apprenticeship system.

“We need to be really, really good at communications both actively and through making material available to employers and individuals,” he says, adding that he wants the institute to engage strongly – not just with employers, but employees and potential apprentices as well. To this end the organisation has set up an apprentice panel which will advise its board. Members include an apprentice from a florist’s shop in Southampton as well as a trainees from larger organisations.

“They came to one of our first meetings and gave some very powerful, and actually quite emotional input,” Lauener says, recalling one panel member who shared how she had gone to the job centre expecting to get a job as a cleaner but was offered a place on an over-50s apprenticeship scheme at Barclays.

“It had changed her life. She said: ‘How could I ever expect to get a job in Barclays?’ As it happens, our chair is the ex-chief executive of Barclays and I looked over to him – he was sitting there with a broad smile on his face because this was something he'd had a hand in starting.”

When he’s talking about the history of vocational training, Lauener doesn’t stop with his father’s experience. His grandfather arrived in London as an immigrant shortly before the First World War. He worked as a chef, around the corner from the newly established Catering School which was meeting the needs of hoteliers across the city.

“I've no family records to confirm it, but I'd like to think that he might have got some of his training at that establishment,” Lauener says, before adding reflectively: “That kind of vocational skills training is something that helps a lot of young people suddenly discover that they can succeed in life.”

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