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Councils slam ‘disappointing’ move to base apprenticeship target on headcount

The upcoming apprenticeship target of 2.3% for the public sector workforce, due to come into force in April, will be based on headcount rather than full-time equivalent (FTE) – a move the LGA has branded as disappointing.

In its response to the apprenticeship consultation, first opened in January 2016, the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that the government has taken into accounts all opinions and “decided on balance to retain headcount as the basis for the target”.

If the headcount target were to be replaced with an FTE basis, the DfE argued, “then the current 2.3% target would result in a lower number of starts, meaning that the public sector wouldn’t be delivering their fair share”.  It also claimed headcount data is more readily available across the whole of the public sector.

“To achieve the same number of starts using FTE, government anticipates that the target would need to be raised to approximately 2.8%. This would mean other organisations with a lower ratio of part-time workers would have a higher target,” its consultation response said.

The LGA, however, said it was disappointed with the decision, with Cllr Mark Hawthorne, chairman of its People and Places Board, stressing that the government “has not heeded our concerns and opted for a headcount target and not FTE which will penalise employers with more part-time staff”.

The consultation response approached the issue fairly honestly, with the government appreciating that the 2.3% target is an “ambitious” one that may be perceived by those with a high proportion of part-time workers as “overly stretching”.

“For example, in local government the percentage of FTE staff is around 70% of the headcount and approximately half of employees are part-time. By contrast, in the NHS the percentage of FTE staff is around 90% of the headcount,” the DfE said.

“However, the government expects the public sector to lead the way, and organisations who believe their staffing structure has acted as a material barrier to achieving the target can say so in their reporting.

“In particular, in meeting these concerns we suggest that bodies with a high proportion of part-time workers should use FTE in parallel with headcount to report and explain any under-achievement of the target as necessary.”

It then added further down in the document: “The government understands that 2.3% is a stretching target. The government also recognises that other objectives, including quality and good outcomes for apprentices, are important. That is why we are making the target an average of 2.3% starts across the years that the target applies, from 2017-18 to 2020-21.”

The apprenticeship target measures, first announced in 2015 and brought in as a duty as part of the 2016 Enterprise Act, are expected to ensure at least three million apprentices are working in the public sector by 2020.

Also today, the DfE’s skills minister Robert Halfon announced that his department is setting the public sector a target of recruiting 200,000 more apprentices by the end of this Parliament.

“We are committed to breaking down barriers and creating a ladder of opportunity for people everywhere. For our public sector to be the very best in the world, we need talented and ambitious people of all ages and from every background,” said Halfon.

“Businesses across the country have well and truly got behind apprenticeships. Now it is time to ensure the public sector reaps the benefits of apprenticeships and young people get the opportunities they deserve.”

The new target is being championed by the Civil Service, which pledged an “unprecedented increase in apprentices”, to achieve 30,000 new starts in England by 2020. There is an expectation to see similar levels of growth in the UK Home Civil Service outside of England.

Despite his disappointment with the decision to use a headcount basis, the LGA’s Cllr Hawthorne praised the government’s decision to push through with the 2.3% target, emphasising that local government is “fully behind” this commitment.

It has, however, recently called for smaller council-maintained schools to be exempt from the apprenticeship levy which will accompany the introduction of the target in April. It had also previously called for councils to be exempt from the target altogether.

Recently, influential think tank IPPR argued 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.

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