Apprenticeship reforms ‘not fit for the 21st century’, warns IPPR

England is in danger of introducing an apprenticeship system that would have worked well in the economy of the 1960s but is not fit for a 21st century workforce, the IPPR has said as part of a series of concerns surrounding the government’s reform plans for next year.

In a briefing paper, the influential think tank said the new apprenticeship system, which will introduce a levy on larger employers and impose a 2.3% apprentice workforce target, takes inspiration “from the medieval notion that employers should set the standards for trainees entering their profession” – that is, the notion of masters, guilds and a license to practise.

Whilst this could still work in some sectors – such as construction, engineering and pharmaceuticals – it is not applicable to all professions.

“While the new system might work well in sectors where there are large employers with a commitment to training the ‘next generation’ of their workforce, they will not help to improve the skills base in many other parts of the jobs market that are characterised by smaller employers, low-skilled jobs, or less traditional sectors which don’t have a shared sense of ‘occupational identity’ (such as retail),” the IPPR said.

The think tank’s associate director for public services, Jonathan Clifton, added: “We need to create an apprenticeship system that works in a jobs market that is increasingly characterised by small firms, service sector jobs and flexible working.

“The government have made a number of steps in the right direction – including introducing an apprenticeship levy – but there is more work to be done to ensure that all young people have access to high quality ‘earning and learning’ routes.”

Charlynne Pullen, an IPPR senior research fellow, also argued that not enough young people are benefiting from the apprenticeship programme, and that this could get worse in the coming years.

“Training existing staff in what they already know isn’t what the public think of as an apprenticeship. There is a real risk of the new apprenticeship system repeating many of the same mistakes as the previous system that it is replacing,” Pullen explained.

The IPPR said there will be little additional training introduced, with some employers simply re-badging existing staff training as apprenticeships in order to secure government money or ‘recoup’ their levy. This could both devalue the apprenticeship ‘brand’ and keep extra training or skills development from being delivered.

The government’s self-imposed target to create three million apprenticeships by 2020 could also see apprentices being placed on inappropriate levels because it will encourage “as many starts as possible”.

Amongst the think tank’s recommendations for central government was the need to investigate ways to reduce the administrative burden of the levy on employers; to restrict apprenticeships only to the sectors where they can add real value; and to tighten up the new apprenticeship standards and a single common framework of technical standards.

The IPPR’s report comes just a few days after the government both confirmed it would press ahead with the apprenticeship reforms, and revealed further details of its funding and structure.

It also builds on a series of criticisms against the planned reforms as they stand, with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development calling it “irresponsible” and “disappointing” that the government hadn’t scrapped the proposals. It had also already urged the DfE to postpone introducing the levy after research showed a majority of employers opposed it.


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