The quality of apprenticeships is an issue never far from the FE headlines. Nida Broughton outlines her view of the possible effect of reforms.

Apprenticeships are an important part of the Government’s productivity plan — a high quality apprenticeship system is seen as vital to help meet the need for new technical and professional skills over the coming years.

While the apprenticeship programme has grown substantially over the past decade, its shortcomings in terms of the quality of training provided have been well-documented. With a new funding system to be put in place, the big question for policymakers in 2016 is how to solve the quality problem.

Research by Professor Alison Wolf has highlighted the low and falling levels of spending over the past decade. By 2013-14, spending per apprenticeship start came to £2,500, down from around £3,000 in 2002-03 before taking into account inflation. In this situation, it is unsurprising that there has been so much concern about the quality of some apprenticeship programmes and the value of the skills that they provide.

With a target for 3m apprenticeship starts this Parliament, the funding question was an urgent one. The new apprenticeships levy promises to bring in the kind of cash that is needed to pay for higher quality schemes. According to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the levy is expected to bring in £3bn a-year by 2019-20, allowing a cash terms doubling in spending compared to 2010-11.

Problem solved? Not yet. In fact, on quality, there is a danger of slipping into complacency. Just as important as how much funding is available is how that money is spent.

A restrictive approach that only looked at how apprenticeships are delivered, and not the results that they produce, would be unlikely to result in value for money

This is an important question because the problem with the last decade of apprenticeships wasn’t simply poor overall quality. Some types of apprenticeships were very good indeed, providing good quality training that improved career prospects. Research by the Social Market Foundation, and others, show that level three apprenticeships generally provide a greater boost to earnings than level two apprenticeships. And there are substantial differences by occupation and sector, as might be expected given the differing patterns of skill demand across the economy. One apprenticeship is quite definitely not just as good as another. We need to make sure that money is directed towards the areas that make the biggest difference to productivity and good employment opportunities.

Putting employers in charge has been a much trumpeted change under the new system. A new Institute of Apprenticeships, independent and led by employers, is to regulate the quality of apprenticeships. But how is it to deal with the fact that some employers’ apprenticeship programmes will be much better than those of others — both in terms of boosting productivity and improving the career prospects of those enrolled on them? How the new Institute’s remit is drafted and how the Institute chooses to meet its remit will make a big difference to the future success of the apprenticeships programme.

Quality can mean many different things. A limited interpretation could mean the Institute sets some baseline criteria to ensure all apprenticeships meet a required standard, for example, number of training days, programme length and types of qualification that are included. These sorts of requirements may be relatively easy to set and monitor, but such a restrictive approach that only looked at how apprenticeships are delivered, and not the results that they produce, would be unlikely to result in value for money.

A more difficult approach, but one that is vital, is to build in greater rewards and funding for training that genuinely contributes to improved productivity and wage growth. Encouraging progression from level two to level three apprenticeships would be a positive step. Capturing information on how well former apprentices from different programmes go on to do, and publishing that data to help both prospective apprentices and the Institute to decide how funding can best be used would be even better.
It would be a great shame now, if having found a way to make the funds available, we do not invest them wisely in training that will make a genuine contribution to improving skills, pay and productivity.