A government consultation on apprenticeship funding reforms is looking at making employers pay towards training. Kirstie Donnelly explores the implications.

All 16-year-olds are different. All of them have different talents and different goals in life.

Some, for example, are naturally academic and suited to classroom learning. Others, as we all know so well, are better suited to practical learning. These are the ones who should be given the opportunity to start an apprenticeship.

So I was alarmed to learn the government’s technical consultation on apprenticeship funding, published this month, and its proposed changes to the funding of the 16 and 17-year-old apprenticeship system that could potentially undermine or severely damage it.

According to the proposals, apprenticeships for 18-year-olds would remain fully-funded (for the time being, at least), but employers would have to part-fund apprenticeships for 16 and 17-year-olds.

No decision has been taken, but as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers and others have cautioned, moving from full funding to a new approach risks apprenticeship uptake.

And it seems to me these proposals would create a two-tier system, putting apprenticeships for 16-year-olds on a different standing to those available to 18-year-olds — which is surely another way of saying that 16 and 17-year-olds shouldn’t really be doing apprenticeships in the first place, but should be staying in school.

This hardly matches the rhetoric we heard from the government during National Apprenticeship Week, emphasising the value of vocational routes.

How will we ever end what Education Secretary Michael Gove called ‘the apartheid at the heart of our education system’ if the system portrays apprenticeships at age 16 as inferior to A-levels?

How will we ever end what Education Secretary Michael Gove called ‘the apartheid at the heart of our education system’ if the system portrays apprenticeships at age 16 as inferior to A-levels?

Nobody is suggesting young people should be discouraged from academia. I just want people to have the opportunity to choose the route that’s right for them, not be pushed one way or another.

Make no mistake, this choice matters. I don’t need to tell you that plenty of 16-year-olds thrive as apprentices, and gain skills that make them work-ready — which, given the levels of youth unemployment in this country, mustn’t be undervalued. Apprenticeships are a lifeline to social mobility, and should remain so.

But I’m also worried about the impact this will have on employers — the very people we rely on to drive apprenticeships forward. My biggest concern is that if employers have to bear the cost, will they even bother to hire apprentices at this age?

And, especially if apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds are to be run along different lines, are we adding yet another off-putting layer of bureaucracy? Okay, larger businesses will probably be fine, but what about small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) — the bulk of the UK business community?

A fifth of small business owners plan to take on one or more apprentices in the next 12 months, according to the Skills Funding Agency — but if the government makes the funding structure too complicated it risks jeopardising any progress we’ve made.

To me, these plans are just another way for the government to slice more funding from the FE sector, when instead they should be investing in it.

History shows us that during a recession, the companies that succeed are the ones who invest.

Investing in apprenticeships, including for 16 and 17-year-olds, will help this country come out on top.

It’s important to remember that these are just proposals. But if they do come into effect in 2016, it’ll be yet another change in a sector that is crying out for stability.

I think it’s fair to say that at the moment, apprenticeships don’t have the credibility they deserve. In fact, we haven’t had a vocational and apprenticeship system that we could be truly proud of for more than 30 years. Get the system wrong now and we risk years’ more upheaval.

Our apprenticeship system has the potential to benefit so many, but endless tinkering, and no farsighted consideration of the consequences will only damage it in the long run. Far better that we choose the right approach now and focus on making it great.

 

Kirstie Donnelly, UK managing director, City & Guilds