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The power of apprenticeships

David Willett, corporate director at The Open University, describes how the apprenticeship levy can help public sector organisations unlock leadership potential in a volatile environment.

It’s no secret that the public sector landscape, just as with the commercial industry, is in a state of flux. The changing technological, economic and political climate is driving a seismic shift in responsibilities, priorities and expectations, and leadership will be ‘make or break.’

The ability to manage change – both in terms of adaptation and implementation – and the aptitude to lead others through uncertainty is crucial and, for many, it’s here that people development is most important. The organisational culture here in the UK sees many talented and experienced workers promoted to management positions with little or no training in leadership – and this puts our public sector at risk.

With so much change on the horizon, we need our leaders to be ‘all-rounders.’ Even with years of experience, few workers will have had the opportunity to build the diverse skillset required to be successful leaders: finance, marketing, change management, project management, people management, and more. While many of these skills can be learned on the job to a certain degree, exposure to some more specialist talents may not have been forthcoming – so training is required to reset the balance. 

The apprenticeship model

Of course, with significant cuts to public sector budgets in recent years, it is difficult to put the money aside to invest in training. But the introduction of the apprenticeship levy has opened new doors to executive training that can help to develop the qualities and skills needed for effective leadership.

Since April 2017, public sector organisations with an annual pay bill of over £3m have had to spend 0.5% of the wage bill on the apprenticeship levy. This cost can be recouped through investing in apprenticeships, countering the reduction in learning and development budgets experienced by many authorities. Not only can the funding help public sector employers reach their targets for apprenticeships but, used effectively, it can also ultimately help to ensure that the public sector workforce can become more efficient in administering its duties.

Despite many believing that apprenticeships are only appropriate for entry-level staff and young people, there are now programmes that include degree and master’s qualifications, which are perfect for building higher skills amongst more senior staff. Not only does this type of learning encourage leadership training to be more practical, work-based and relevant, it could be essential for current and future leaders in the public sector who will face a number of complex challenges in coming years.

Meeting the challenges

Learning and gaining experience ‘on the job’ used to be enough, but these new challenges require such a breadth and depth of skills that it is difficult to learn without additional support. In order to thrive in such a period of uncertainty, we need high-quality leaders with a balance of experience and higher-level skills, with the agility and adaptability required to successfully implement changes both now and in the future.

We’ve already seen technology drive a considerable shift across the public and private sectors, and services need to be delivered differently as a result – this needs to be a priority for leaders going forward, or organisations risk being left behind as digital disruption grows. The changes needed are significant and continuous, so it’s essential that leaders have the flexibility to influence and adapt their organisation’s plans, and the project management skills to ensure that service quality remains high throughout the implementation of new processes and systems.

Now, in the age of social media, people are more vocal about what they expect from organisations: speedy responses, transparency and good service. This means that some practices need to be adjusted to meet demand – and failure to address these new expectations comes with substantial reputational risk. More than ever, leaders need to have an understanding of what needs to be done to meet expectations, but also of the marketing and media activity required to respond to issues and present their organisation in a positive light. These specific skills are often difficult to learn in non-marketing roles, so many aspiring leaders could benefit from additional training.

While these and many other broader issues affect all organisations, public sector leaders are also facing additional pressure from government cuts, which requires particular management and leadership skills. Of course, an understanding of finance and change management is essential, but maintaining the morale of staff in the wake of rounds of redundancies is also a significant challenge to overcome, and people management skills will be crucial for retention and engagement as remaining staff worry for their futures.

These challenges are just the tip of the iceberg for public sector leaders, but they clearly illustrate the breadth of experience and understanding needed in order to be successful and drive organisations forward. Offering leadership training gives staff a platform to build from, ensuring that they are confident and capable of steering their organisation through difficult times, while transforming their area of responsibility.


The Open University answer

Adding to a suite of apprenticeships that already encompass degree-level qualifications for digital and management skills, The Open University will soon launch its Senior Leader Master’s Degree Apprenticeship, which has been specifically designed by its triple-accredited Business School to prepare new leaders and further develop experienced leaders. Senior leaders and future leaders can undertake high-quality work-based learning and receive an MBA (Leadership Practice) with the cost fully covered by apprenticeship levy funding.

With efficiency being a key consideration in the public sector, The Open University’s approach is appealing. Technology-enabled learning means that programme delivery is more flexible, enabling apprentices to fit training around their day-to-day responsibilities and making it easier to manage the 20% off-the-job learning requirement set by the Education and Skills Funding Agency. A technology-enabled approach has also been proven to result in less time to competency, which means that learners are able to put their new skills and knowledge into practice more quickly.

Modules in this programme cover perspectives and practice of management, understanding the dynamics of strategy and corporate finance, and are designed for professionals from a wide range of backgrounds who need to engage with the challenges of 21st-century management. The course helps leaders to development skills and knowledge of management frameworks, theories and tools, and to use these appropriately in order to make a real difference in their own practice.

The Open University’s MBA apprenticeship covers:

  • Leadership;
  • Strategic management;
  • Managing in an international/inter-cultural context;
  • Managing people;
  • Financial and management accounting principles;
  • Marketing;
  • Operations and supply chain management;
  • Change management;
  • Virtual collaboration;
  • Peer learning;
  • Practice-based reflection on management challenges.


The Open University is currently accepting applications for its Senior Leader Master’s Degree Apprenticeship with a view to registering a limited first cohort to start in May 2018. The programme typically takes 2.5 years to complete. Find out more at:


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