The Department for Education’s plans to get 16-year-old classroom-based vocational learners into apprenticeships after a year are assessed by Dame Asha Khemka.

Skills Minister Nick Boles’ announcement of a “ground-breaking” overhaul of technical and professional education last week represented the latest in a long line of reforms to the FE and skills sector.

The major issue with this policy agenda rests with the availability of high-quality apprenticeship places for 16 to 18-year-olds that lead to real jobs

The proposed reforms provide us with some interesting questions, perhaps some opportunities and almost certainly several challenges – not just for the sector but for government in its implementation.

The cynical view is that this is yet another erosion of colleges; that this policy is a way of diverting funding from the full-time study programme to achieve the 3m apprenticeship target, which will be challenging to meet and even harder to fund.

Apprenticeships are not inherently ‘cheaper’ in funding terms, yet around 70 per cent are currently not delivered within colleges.

Take this to its ultimate conclusion and there is a risk that college funding will be reduced — particularly if we lose our 16 to 18-year-olds to other providers from the age of 17.

Some of our young people already progress from a one-year level two course onto an apprenticeship, or leave their study programme early to pursue one — so having a system that recognises this as a valid and intentional route is no bad thing.

If the policy works as it should, then colleges will be best placed to offer that progression route. It will also enable us to extend our provision of directly-delivered apprenticeships and create opportunities for strategic relationships with more employers, providing the pipeline for their future workforce in a structured way.

Who knows, this may redress the balance and see more apprenticeships delivered by colleges within this parliament which, in turn, may well enhance the sector’s reputation with government as we become a key leader in meeting this major priority for skills. This could finally be an opportunity to create a vocational pathway that is as highly-valued as the academic.

There are, however, pitfalls. The major issue with this policy agenda rests with the availability of high-quality apprenticeship places for 16 to 18-year-olds that lead to real jobs. There seems to be an assumption that if young people want and are ready for an apprenticeship, they will be able to access one. Yet this ignores the essential ingredient — an actual vacancy.

We already know that the number of apprenticeship vacancies is the single biggest limiting factor in young people following this pathway. What will be different under these reforms to change that?

The risk is we create a two-tier system whereby the brightest progress and the rest are left behind. If the government uses some kind of financial ‘bribe’ to encourage employers to take on an apprentice, there becomes a real danger that no sustainable and long-term employment is available for them once they complete their training — potentially leaving us with a cadre of young people without a job at the end of their apprenticeship.

How will these latest reforms affect the viability of courses within colleges?

If only half of students can progress, then surely the second year of a full-time study programme suddenly looks a lot less viable than before. What about the readiness of young people to progress?

We all know that not all 17-year-olds are the same. Some are more than ready to take on the challenge of work while others need more time learning the softer skills needed to be a great employee. What will the 20 vocational routes looks like? And where do ‘hybrid’ subjects like creative media sit?

If all this seems as though there are far more questions than answers, it’s because there are.

However, one thing is certain. The sector that emerges from the current reforms will be very different to the one we know. Will it be stronger? If the vision being set out is realised and we take the opportunities on offer, then yes — I believe it will be.