Graham Taylor questions whether apprenticeships are really worth all the funding and special attention being lavished on them by the government.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against apprenticeships but I’ve nothing against the hundreds of other qualifications in the adult skills budget.

‘Other’ says it all, but it encompasses some great qualifications. The budget has been cut by 28 per cent this year.

We could overspend it three times over, such is the demand from learners and business, but the money has dried up.

Whisper ‘apprenticeships’ and politicians go weak at the knees, but what’s so special about them? And can we sell more to meet Cameron’s 3m 2020 target? The product content keeps changing and so does price (who pays and how much?) Standards are uncertain and quality is, at best, ‘variable’.

As Mrs Merton says ‘let’s have a heated debate’.

So what are they? In essence they ape occupational standards. NVQs had a rough ride under Train to Gain — deemed to be ‘deadweight’ qualifications.

Apprenticeships were only ‘NVQs with knobs on’, the useful knobs being functional skills or GCSEs English and maths GCSEs.

Trailblazer content is still a work in progress. Many frameworks are still to be released.

Most now combine a competence-based NVQ with a substantial knowledge qualification. For example, the level three business diploma is now a huge beast counting 58 credits.

Other key considerations are who pays and how much? Why wouldn’t apprentices take out loans? Uncle Vince [Cable] rapidly withdrew this option as a growth strategy. Why not treat them just like any other loanable qualification? Let the learner decide what’s best.

How will large companies react to the levy [that they will be forced to pay]? The government expects to raise £3bn. Businesses will want their money back through high quality training which demonstrably improves productivity.

Like all assessment-based qualifications, there aren’t really any national standards, but devil’s contracts between assessor and apprentice

One thing’s for sure, the levy and the Digital Apprenticeship Service will add complexity and additional costs to the process.

Then there are standards to consider. Like all assessment-based qualifications, there aren’t really any national standards, but devil’s contracts between assessor and apprentice.

It leads to variations in quality and output. Quality could vary wildly as the supply side expands (get yourself on ROTO) and companies and colleges chase the money.

Companies like Next and the Priory Group have been accused in the national press of taking on low paid trainees without giving them proper training to develop skills and complete qualifications.

Sir Michael Wilshaw condemned such schemes that wasted taxpayers’ money on accrediting low level skills “such as mopping floors and making coffee”.

It’s true that most apprenticeships are level two and many are in service occupations where it’s sometimes hard to see the added value (shades of Train to Gain).

It’s hard to tell whether an Institute for Apprenticeships or the assessment organisations can help to ensure quality across each standard, no matter where, how or by whom they’re being delivered. Good luck with that.

The Skills Funding Agency (SFA) aims to increase competition “to help employers make an informed decision….”

There’ll be no distinction between primary (who have direct SFA contracts) and sub-contractors. Anyone can submit information about their organisational viability and quality assurance. If they meet due diligence standards and get on the Registers of Training and Organisations and Apprenticeship Assessment they can become a lead provider and negotiate commercial terms directly with employers, to deliver apprenticeship training.

Employers can choose any registered organisation. A competitive price and quality bunfight will ensue.

So get the content right (some are much easier to pass than others) and bring on the competition.

Judge providers by the quality of their work and the outcomes they achieve. Stiffen the standards so that short cuts can’t be taken.

Will the planned changes shake up the market the way the government wants?

Let’s see, but favouring any group of qualifications distorts the market and leads to unnecessary waste, increased bureaucracy and expensive national marketing campaigns.