A disaster waiting to happen
The collapse in apprenticeship starts was as predictable as it is disappointing. We need a full and open debate to ensure it doesn’t happen again, writes Mark Dawe
One can only imagine the Sir Humphrey-style conversations that took place between ministers and officials following the 61 per cent collapse in apprenticeship starts since May: ‘Not quite two-thirds though, is it, minister?’ or, perhaps, ‘Don’t worry, minister, we predicted this devastating fall – if we keep doing nothing, our model says we will be alright and hit the target’. Has anyone seen the model and the full assumptions? I don’t think we are going to be okay unless action is taken and taken quickly.
We are happy to recognise that even though the figures are dire, there are some silver linings for providers, such as a more promising outlook for starts with large levy-paying employers. Nevertheless, as the AELP commented when the figures were released, the collapse in numbers was all too predictable. It has, after all, been 12 months since MPs on the Public Accounts Committee warned officials from the Department for Education that starts would crash in their constituencies because they had few or no levy payers in them.
The design of the system wasn’t changed between that October 2016 session and the start of the levy. Consequently, we saw starts fall from 113,000 in May-July 2016 to 43,600 for the same period this year. According to this month’s statistical first release, 18,500 (or 42 per cent per cent) of starts since May of this year were with levy payers and unless there is a change in policy, the proportion of starts with levy payers is very likely to increase and for existing staff at higher levels.
In response to the numbers, it is important to point out that it is not just the funding part of the apprenticeship reforms that is responsible for the drop. The switch-over from frameworks to standards has also been a factor as many employers have held back on starts until they know that a standard has been approved with the proper assessment arrangements in place.
The understandable drive to improve quality alongside the increase in starts towards the 3 million target has unfortunately included the misguided notion that quality will be better if 20 per cent of all apprenticeship training is done off the job over a minimum of 12 months. This arbitrary equivalent of a day release every week belongs to another era. It offers no guarantee of quality learning for the apprentice and Ofsted is not interested in inspecting it as such. Furthermore, there are many examples of on-the-job training that are far superior to the off-the-job equivalent. Employers in both the private and public sectors, including NHS Trusts, are pushing back against what is just an Education and Skills Funding Agency funding rule. Some say that they can’t afford the non-productive time or the cost of staff backfill. Even worse, the rule is acting as barrier against social mobility because it is reducing the number of opportunities for young people to start an apprenticeship at Level 2 with the promise of progression.
Like it or not, the apprenticeship reforms are employer-driven and paying the levy means that employers are very much entitled to have a big say on what an apprenticeship should look like. Therefore, it is AELP’s view that the employer-led Trailblazer groups should be given the responsibility to decide what percentage of off-the-job training is appropriate for their particular sector and at each level. Indeed, there may be different approaches depending on the employer, employment and setting for each apprentice.
The huge drop in non-levy starts can also be attributed to resistance from small and medium-sized enterprises to the new co-investment requirement and the original botched procurement exercise for providers to bid for non-levy funding disrupting the supply side. We now know too that the government’s thinking on predicted starts was originally based on a bizarre set of assumptions which would never have stood up if they had been run past experienced and expert stakeholders first. The government must do more to consult with employers and providers in finding an approach that works.
As a matter of urgency, to stop further sharp falls in starts, the government needs to:
- restore incentives for employers to recruit young apprentices;
- halt the decline in apprenticeship opportunities at Level 2 and Level 3;
- guarantee a minimum £1 billion budget for the apprenticeships of non-levy paying SMEs;
- allow flexibility between on- and off-the-job training.
We then need a full and open debate involving all stakeholders, including sector leaders, on the design of the funding model which will be used for apprenticeships after the non-levy paying employers join the levy payers on the digital Apprenticeship Service in April 2019. Let’s not stumble into another catastrophe in a programme which has so many positives.
Mark Dawe is Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers