Apprenticeships: a practical way of learning

It is no secret that one of the best ways to acquire skills is through doing the job as well as learning the theory. But there can be few places where this is more relevant than in a childcare environment.

Snapdragons Nurseries operates eight sites across south west England, offering childcare to more than 1,000 families and employing 180 people. Since the company started 16 years ago, there has always been a heavy focus on in-house training, but it wanted to progress this further, and in 2012 it introduced an apprenticeship programme.

“We see it as a great way to attract proactive, energetic young people into our industry,” says Mary Llewellin, Snapdragons’ business development manager. “They are willing to learn and enthusiastic about getting hands on and starting their careers.”

And, while the company offers other routes into roles at the company, including those who have completed a childcare qualification at college, apprenticeships offer the opportunity to mould recruits fresh from school. “We can help teach them Snapdragons’ ethos, its principles and the character of our company, as well as the practical skills they need,” Llewellin adds.

The company has partnered with national training provider learndirect for a number of years, so it was a natural progression to work with them to offer childcare apprenticeships. Snapdragons now employs more than 30 apprentices and, in the past year, entered a partnership with a local primary academy and a group of higher education institutions to become a teaching school.

High on the agenda at the nursery chain is career progression. Most apprentices stay with Snapdragons, and many have even been promoted to nursery managers. Hannah Saunders, who started an apprenticeship there in 2012, is already head of babies and manages staff.

She says: “I’ll continue to progress and may become a nursery manager some day. Using the skills I learnt on my apprenticeship I now manage a small team of staff and plan activities for a group of children.”

An additional benefit is that line managers who are supporting apprentices feel they have a vital role in shaping someone’s career. Saunders will be looking after apprentices herself soon, and says she is looking forward to “helping them through their next steps”.

Llewellin says that the personal development aspect of apprenticeships is very important to the company. “The last thing we want is an apprenticeship to be an opportunity for us to have cheap labour,” she says. “We see it as a chance to get a really great employee on board with us early, and we hope they will stay with us, progress through and hopefully become managers one day.”

That said, offering apprenticeships throws up some challenges. One of the biggest is balancing studies and assessments against the day-to-day demands of running a nursery.

She explains: “A lot of the assessment can be done on the ‘shopfloor’, but there are times when apprentices have to go off and do exams, or have individual questioning [with their assessor], and if we are counting them within the legal [childcare] ratios then this can be an issue.”

Snapdragons addresses this by working with assessors to manage busy times such as lunchtimes, and ensuring there is sufficient cover on days when apprentices are being assessed.

Commenting on views raised by some employers that young people are not ready for the workplace, HR manager Nicki Jones believes it is up to employers to accommodate and support new staff rather than expect them to hit the ground running.

She adds: “Young people straight out of school will always have had a lot of direction, so when they come into the workplace, we adapt the way we work to make sure we do not just throw them in at the deep end. They still have to go through the same training and induction as our other staff, but there is an additional role of counselling, nurturing and supporting them.”

From the apprentices’ perspective, they relish the opportunity to earn some money while they acquire a qualification in the area they want to work. And because the childcare sector is heavily regulated, it helps to have a balance of hands-on work experience with the necessary theory.

“Putting the theory into practice every day helped so much because when it came to writing answers for my qualification, I had a practical idea of how it worked,” says Rachel Morgan, who completed her apprenticeship last year and has just become head of pre-school. “It’s such a good way of learning.”

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