After this morning’s apprenticeship levy update from the Department for Education – which FE Week was the first to report on – the CBI was quick to reiterate its call for the levy to be delayed. Here Neil Carberry explains why a levy that puts quality and system design first can only be achieved by delaying its implementation. 

At last. The launch of further information from the Government on the apprenticeship levy. Companies and providers – already running hard to work out what they will do from April have more certainty now, albeit a full two months later than promised.

That, at least, is something to welcome – as is support for smaller firms and movement on funding for equivalent qualifications. But you don’t have to go far into the document to realise businesses will still be concerned at the direction of travel.

Before I set out why, let me be clear on one thing. We really believe in apprenticeships and improving the quality of our vocational skills system – in the workplace and in colleges. Some have accused the CBI of wanting to “gut” the levy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We want a system that defines success in the right terms – filling skills gaps for firms and improving outcomes for learners, all delivered by a sustainable and high quality provider base. A levy is one way to fund that – but only if you put quality and system design first, not fiscal and political targets.

Our view is that levy design is coming to these vital economic and social goals too late – the system we have is designed to work for Whitehall – but won’t work in Walsall.

Firstly, the system proposed isn’t flexible enough to meet firms’ needs. The rates and caps suggested, together with the government’s view that business investment in training beyond off the job costs has little or no value leaves firms in a bind. For them, the system incentivises either cutting back on the quality or numbers of their apprenticeships – or to reducing or rebadging other training. Many committed firms will soldier on despite this, but how can it be good to make it more expensive to train than to just pay the levy as a tax? We need a system – like so many other levies around the world – that is flexible enough to fund what firms and learners need and make those who don’t train pay the costs of those that do.

Secondly, the system needs new standards that pass the government’s big test – transferability. We agree with them that a big reason not to allow levy funds to be spent on any old training is that the courses have to be high quality and add to people’s employability. If we are honest, not all of the frameworks have done that in the past.

So why are we seeing qualifications actively purged from trailblazers? Why will the employer-led Institute for Apprenticeships have no voice over the set-up of the system, only its operation? In truth, this is still essentially the same approach cooked up by BIS officials last summer. For all the effort across the sector, we have been heard but not listened to. The radical redesign the CBI and so many others wanted is not happening yet.

But there is one thing that can’t be ignored – the ticking of the clock. The tune from inside government has changed on this over the past few months. Enough people within government know what a project timeline in trouble looks like – and the levy system is one of those. On the digital service, cross-border issues with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and many more concerns. In truth, it is highly unlikely that the structures and rules necessary to make the system work on day one can be delivered effectively on the current timelines.

Perhaps this last point is the one that will finally lead the government to pause for thought. Perhaps those advocating a new approach for the levy have the best interests of our skills system at heart. Perhaps in fact, all we want – businesses, providers alike – is a system that works from day one? A system that closes skills gaps, and delivers three million opportunities – not just three million starts.

Our new minister, Robert Halfon, has made some pointed remarks on the need for apprenticeships to make a difference to young people’s lives in terms of offering opportunity. These are a welcome ray of light, as is the newly reinvigorated debate about industrial strategy. Delivering on these concerns also requires a change of approach.

And we can do this – with the right approach that rewards businesses who do the right thing, high quality business-led standards, and a system that works on launch day. This can be done – business will put its shoulder to the wheel to achieve it. But we need a delay to make it work.