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The great training robbery

Source: PSE June/July 2018

Tom Richmond, senior research fellow at Reform, looks under the hood of the government’s apprenticeship policies and analyses the damage inflicted by the apprenticeship levy on the public sector.

Both the 2015 and 2017 Conservative Party election manifestos committed them to   a target of three million people starting an

apprenticeship by 2020. When the target was first announced, Professor Alison Wolf – author of a major government review of vocational education in 2011 – described it as a “mad and artificial political target which risks undermining the reputation of apprenticeships.”

The National Audit Office subsequently pointed out that the target would not tackle skills gaps or improve outcomes for learners, while the Institute for Fiscal Studies stated that “a stronger focus on quality and a policy designed to maximise impact rather than numbers” was needed instead.

One might think that after such a bruising experience with setting targets for apprenticeship numbers, the government might be less keen on this approach in the future.

On the contrary, they announced last year that public sector bodies with 250 or more staff in England now have a target of employing an average of at least 2.3% of their staff as new apprentice starts from April 2017 to March  2021.  Any  organisation  in scope must ‘have regard’ to this target, meaning that apprenticeships need to be actively considered when making workforce planning decisions.

The challenge for the public sector is that, since the government proposed a sweeping set of reforms to apprenticeships back in 2012, the private sector has very much taken the lead. Employers from various industry sectors came together as ‘Trailblazer’ groups to design new ‘apprenticeship standards,’ which describe the skills, knowledge and behaviours that an apprentice is expected to acquire during their training – a process that is still ongoing today.

The funds generated by the apprenticeship levy (which came into force in April 2017) can be used to train apprentices towards one of these standards. However, if there is no relevant apprenticeship standard in place, an employer will not be able to access the available funding.

Some public sector employers have  used the Trailblazer initiative to produce genuine innovation and exciting opportunities. For example, nursing degree apprenticeships have enabled people to become a graduate registered nurse through an apprenticeship. Unlike the full-time university route, the nursing apprentices will be released by their employer to study towards their degree qualification part-time at a university or other higher education provider and will train in a range of practice placement settings. Crucially, the apprentices will be expected to achieve the same standards as other student nurses, even though they have trained in a different way.

In effect, this opens up the nursing profession to a much wider group of potential applicants and also offers people who wish to become a nurse more choice about how they achieve their goal. This is even more important in a world where a full-time undergraduate degree costs £9,000 a year, whereas a nursing apprentice won’t have to pay anything themselves because the cost of the apprenticeship will be met by their employer. Creating a non-graduate route into an esteemed profession shows exactly what can be achieved through apprenticeships when employers change the way they think about training their staff.

Regrettably, it is just as easy to find examples of far less impressive apprenticeships in the public sector.

A concerning trend, which has been accelerated by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, is that employers are increasingly just rebadging existing training courses as ‘apprenticeships’ to shift the costs of training onto the government instead.

The most obvious examples of this relabelling are found in leadership and management skills. The list of the most popular apprenticeship standards includes becoming a ‘team leader,’ ‘supervisor’ or ‘manager.’ Cranfield University’s prestigious  School  of Management has even re-designated its existing ‘Executive MBA’ as an apprenticeship to attract huge government subsidies towards the programme costs.

Such examples illustrate how the apprenticeship levy is encouraging employers to prioritise older and more experienced workers instead of improving the recruitment and training of young people in skilled occupations. This will do little, if anything, to help public sector organisations create sustainable talent pipelines for people to enter new occupations and progress towards more senior levels over time.

There are also worrying signs of a demise  in apprenticeship quality through low-skill roles being relabelled as ‘apprenticeships.’ The list of roles now officially counted as  an ‘apprenticeship’ includes basic office administration and customer service positions. Such training courses do not meet the historical or international definition of an apprenticeship because they typically offer minimal training, represent low-wage jobs, and do not constitute skilled occupations.

While some public sector employers may feel that this is a legitimate way to use up funding from the levy, there is an obvious reputational risk to organisations that take on staff for these roles in terms of apprentices becoming disillusioned with the derisory amount of training on offer – particularly when other staff performing the same roles could be getting paid considerably more than them.

The target of three million apprenticeships by 2020 and the new public sector apprenticeship target are not responsible for every problem related to apprenticeship quality and quantity described in the new report that I published with the Reform think tank.

However, no research evidence has ever been published by the government to support the notion that 600,000 apprenticeship starts per year from 2015 to 2020 is appropriate for the economy.

Moreover, the incentives that the target has introduced into the apprenticeship system for public sector employers, training providers and assessors will undermine any attempt to either improve the quality and stature of apprenticeships in the public sector or generate more opportunities for young people to enter skilled occupations.

Politicians from all parties are right to demand a better technical education system in this country, but the apparent targeting of the quantity of apprenticeships rather than the quality and substance of what is being delivered is the wrong approach.


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