Nine months into the job at SIAS, Managing Director Steve Smith is reflecting on his move across the education spectrum into the world of apprenticeships and end-point assessment, a sector he describes as ‘really positive, with a huge passion’ from those working within it, in how apprenticeships can really advantage a young person’s life.
“My background is in education and awarding, but this has been the first foray for me specifically into the world of apprenticeships and end-point assessment,” admits Steve, “but it’s given me, I feel, a unique position, because I’ve been able to come in from the outside slightly with a fresh pair of eyes, which has proved advantageous so far.
“There’s a lot of collaboration too, which I’ve found encouraging; there’s probably more collaboration within the apprenticeship sector than I’ve seen in the wider education and awarding space,” he added. “There’s a willingness, even amongst commercially-competing organisations to come together, share best practice, and drive standards up; that’s a brilliant thing.”
With the entire STEM education agenda as important as ever, Steve’s view is that STEM skills development and developing a 21st century STEM workforce will only grow in importance over the foreseeable future in a post Covid, net zero focused, future economy. “SIAS is working in a really exciting part of the sector; if you look at the data around apprenticeship starts, achievement rates, and withdrawal stats, STEM apprenticeships are all performing really well, there’s a real strength in the STEM apprenticeship market currently and the value it is delivering in the UK, and we need to build on that moving forward”
Strong achievement performance
Steve is adamant that developing the right skills for the right future jobs is of national importance and he takes a huge amount of pride in SIAS’s part in that journey, helping to build the people, who will be the ones to build a new economy around different types of energy production and technologies that will transform our lives. “None of that’s going to happen without STEM,” he added, “and the role we are playing at SIAS is really exciting. We couldn’t be servicing a more future-proofed part of the apprenticeship market.”
“One of the things I’ve noticed in the first nine months is that there is an imbalance between what I call the tripartite relationship, which is formed of the employer in an employer-led system; the training provider, and the end-point assessment organisation; these are the three key stakeholders apart from the apprentices themselves, who are obviously the most important part of the whole equation,” said Steve.
“Apprenticeships work well when that tripartite relationship is evenly balanced and joined up, and when those three key stakeholders are working closely together end-to-end across the learner journey. If that isn’t happening then that creates problems across the whole model.
“One of my early focuses at SIAS was to set a really high bar for communication and alignment, so that we’re playing our part in getting that balance right, working much closer with partners. Our enduring ambition, alongside our Provider and Employer partners, is to ensure that we’re giving the apprentice the best experience possible and opportunity to achieve, progress and catapult themselves into a meaningful future career.”
Moving away from a transactional model
Another of Steve’s observations about the sector is that it can be too transactional. “That’s a really negative space for the sector to be in, and I’ve been a little shocked to find it,” explained Steve. “The primary reason I feel we’ve had such a successful year to date at SIAS is because, under my leadership, we’ve become obsessed about making sure that we’ve built a model which is the exact opposite of that transactional approach.
“We’re all about being values-driven, about building and nurturing proper partnerships with providers and employers enabling us to deliver a level of value, support and experience that’s actually making their business model better and making their business stronger.
“I think we’re becoming sector-leading very quickly, in terms of that approach, and hopefully reversing that transactional approach,” he added. “That said, I do see other end-point assessment organisations also striving to change, which can only be a positive thing for the sector overall; I think it’s important that, we all work together to bring about that sectoral change.”
Focused and targeted growth
SIAS’s growth has been focussed and targeted, says Steve. It has evolved quickly, and he sees this as addressing a market failure. “In moving forward, we are aligning with the opportunities and challenges that our employers and providers are facing, and planning for. For example, what we’re doing really well now is working closely with the right stakeholders in the right forums to understand what future skills requirements are going to be – whether that’s around hydrogen, the green agenda or one of many other industrial and economic challenges coming down the line.
“It’s about making sure that we are, in how we build our products, portfolio and our business model, market-led and aligned with the skills and workforce development requirements that employers and industry are going to need in the next 3, 5, 10 years. It’s a really fast-changing environment.
“Part of that development for us is built around targeted diversification. What our partners will have seen and what the market will have seen from SIAS this year is an acceleration of a move into related apprenticeship standards,” explained Steve. “We’ve always led the market in terms of science and technology apprenticeships, so that remains really important to us but targeted diversification will take us beyond science into engineering and green technologies: doing what we’ve always done amazingly well within the science technology space but in that wider remit too.
Growth and quality
“Linked to the evolving of our product portfolio, will be continued growth across the parts of the business that support it. We’re strengthening our sales and marketing capabilities all the time and will continue to do so,” Steve added. “Very importantly, we are constantly strengthening our quality and compliance, which is particularly important given our Ofqual-regulated status. More than ever, continuous improvement is built into our DNA.
“Operationally, we have to service growing demand, and service it at the standard our customers expect of us; so, again, we’re building the operational capability within the business. EPA Pro, our recently launched EPA system, is a big part of that.
“It will help us improve in terms of our logistics and our operations and efficiencies and more importantly, it’s about delivering an even better support experience and value to our customers, without losing that human connection.”
An overall successful year
It’s been a hugely successful year so far overall, says Steve, pointing to a forecast full year 77% year-on-year growth in new registrations with SIAS. “This is incredibly positive and just goes to show how quickly we are scaling and evolving. That’s not been a fluke; that’s happened because we’ve been able to really build and strengthen our relationships with our customers, understand them more, and align more.”
“EPA Pro going live, and a 93% first-time achievement rate across all the standards we assess over the last academic year have also been very big, notable successes for SIAS. Obviously, the Ofqual recognition in March was a huge positive story for us too. We were one of the first end-point assessment organisations in the STEM sector, to successfully be approved and now regulated by Ofqual.”
Another success says Steve is the equity in the SIAS brand. “The volume has really been turned up, with our identity and recognition in the market place, which is all the result of a deliberate piece of work to become more visible, celebrating our successes on our website and social media, in our communications with partners and other stakeholders, and in our commitment to be a positive, strong voice in our sector.”
The real big success story for Steve, eclipsing all the others, is the cultural shift at SIAS. “We’ve built a really strong, talented, committed team of professionals, right from the senior leadership team, down throughout the business, everyone’s committed to what we’re trying to achieve and committed to how we’re trying to achieve it, and to working with real pace and quality.
“I see it every day – our commitment to working closely with our customers and putting our customers, our partners and our apprentices at the very heart of everything that we’re doing. That has been the biggest success story compared to when I came into SIAS and I’m always passionate that as long as you can build and keep evolving a culture like that, then you’re not going to go too far wrong because that culture’s contagious.”
The next 12 months
Having reflected on the whirlwind of the last 9 months, for Steve the next year-to-two-years is about building on strengths and continuing to positively evolve SIAS, whilst keeping the balance he wants to achieve by sustaining and strategically growing the business through a partnerships driven, high quality approach across sector – and through maintaining a laser focus on ensuring that practical implementation, relationships and values are at the heart of everything that SIAS is about.
“Moving forward I’m confident this approach will enable us to continue to grow and evolve and become bigger, better, bolder.”