Friday 3rd August 2018

‘Evolutionary Flexing’ required for the Apprenticeship Levy

Simon Ashworth, Chief Policy Officer for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)

Those of you with one eye on tracking the Government’s public messaging will probably have recognised that references to the 3 million apprenticeship starts target have become conspicuous by its absence and after another month’s worth of woeful data, ministers now say that quality is more important than quantity . In many ways, it’s a real shame because of the opportunity that represented to increase the social mobility opportunities for young people and employers benefiting from a better skilled and more productive workforce in the face of Brexit’s labour market challenges. Whatever the views are on the merits of setting numerical targets, everyone should be concerned that the numbers are significantly down on previous years. 290,500 apprenticeship starts have been reported so far for the first three quarters of the 2017-18 academic year, compared to 440,300 and 384,500 reported for the same period in 2016-17 and 2015-16, a decrease of 34% and 24% respectively. Level 2 starts are now over a half less than what they were two years ago while apprenticeship opportunities for young people have fallen by a third. In other words, the social mobility agenda has taken a major battering from poor implementation of the levy reforms, which were actually meant to increase opportunities overall.

If ministers have thrown in the towel on the 3 million target, we still need to think about an apprenticeship funding system which acts a driver for social mobility, as well as improving workforce productivity. This means a better balanced design which increases the number of opportunities at all levels, restores the historic engagement of SMEs in the programme and reverses the 34% drop in starts for young people. The government has the opportunity to achieve a better balance when the next phase of reform starts in April next year. Originally the plan was for all non-levy employers to join the levy payers on the digital Apprenticeship Service, but a phased transition is more likely, which must try and avoid another painful procurement exercise for apprenticeship providers.

Back in May this year, the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) were asked by the Department for Education (DfE) to undertake a review of the funding bands for 31 existing apprenticeship standards. This review includes some of the most popular standards such as Customer Service Practitioner, Team Leader, Operations Manager, Infrastructure Technician and Commis Chef to name but a few and we expect the IfA will be making their recommendations back to the DfE on this very shortly. If you are an employer of any size reading this then it’s important to be aware that funding bands for these standards could go up, down or remain static. With the first two options then this has a direct correlation on your purchasing power moving forward.

I was looking at one of the standards which is part of the review – Level 5 Bespoke Tailor and Cutter. This standard launched in 2016 and has had no starts since its approval. I was stuck how niche it was, how technical the standard was and how there was no obvious progression route into it either. I’m not convinced that funding is the problem here in this specific case, although clearly quality provision costs money to deliver, but who asked the question of the trailblazer employers on that group about who is actually going to deliver this and likewise who is actually going to offer the end point assessment too? We are all in favour of having a system which we have heard so much about in regards “the employer in the driving seat”, but I’m afraid this is yet another example of the system being far too much employer-led rather than employer centric. Just to be clear the reforms were an opportunity to build on the existing infrastructure and the apprenticeship levy represents a game changing opportunity, but so far we have been hampered by the its somewhat clunky implementation which needs some evolutionary flexing rather than wholesale changes.

After sixteen years working in the sector I can say with experience that the only constant in Further Education is the change and it is the change that is constant. There has never been a more important time to ensure that employers are collaborating with high quality trusted training providers to help them navigate all this change to achieve their shared outcomes and objectives.

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