The goverment’s determination not to open up any more lines of funding for our incredibly hard-pressed providers is a strategy that’s doomed to end in disaster, perhaps for many years to come, argues Phil Hatton

The government keeps telling us that it wants to achieve a target of three million apprenticeships, even though we all know that’s extremely ambitious. It’s heavily reliant on small businesses taking apprentices on for the first time, on convincing employers of the benefits to their businesses, and on young people receiving unbiased and independent advice.

Yet every time a minister steps in front of a camera, they stubbornly repeat and refuse to back down from this key numerical pledge.

Surprisingly, over the last few months major changes have been bearing down on us like an iceberg: a new funding agency, levy and non-levy employers, frameworks replaced by standards, end-point assessment and even the bonus of an Institute for Apprenticeships.

Sadly, the news that apprenticeship providers are facing up to a “horror story” of bankruptcy and failure suggests that our shiny new ESFA (no doubt following ministerial orders) is ignoring the blindingly obvious fact that the whole apprenticeships system will need extra funding if it is to have any realistic chance of being successful. The last thing our sector needs is strangulation; instead it needs a turbo-boosted oxygen mask.

Our sector needs a turbo-boosted oxygen mask

Helping colleges and providers gives me the chance to talk to a wide range of employers and learners, and I see many of the latter interested in but not necessarily well-informed about apprenticeships.

A large proportion of 18-year-olds stayed on at school to take A-levels, largely because there was no one independent to mention the other A-word, “apprenticeships”, when they were 16. These same youngsters are now panicking at the prospect of the recommended next step: uni. My prediction for late summer is that many will not want to take up their university places, and because of this funding debacle with apprenticeships, will instead either become NEETs or pick a career path they are not committed to.

I know from my own dealings that civil service advisers often lack the gumption to inform their seniors of the most likely outcome of an action, when this would seem to contradict their ideas. Well, this is not only a huge mistake now, but unless it is quickly changed, it will have an effect for many years to come. There was a time when ministers sounded out inspectorates about possible outcomes of policy decisions, as an independent source, but that time has gone.

Trust me, when they speak out about what is happening to providers, AELP is not just talking for its members but for the young people of Britain and their futures.

If providers have to cut staff literally to survive, they are unlikely to be able to get them all back when the penny finally drops with ministers. Providers are recruiting staff to deliver potential growth areas like higher apprenticeships in management and specialist IT, but the expected funding has been slashed without warning. So much for strategic planning.

The government needs to admit the introduction of the levy and standards apprenticeships has been poorly handled and rushed, to make it happen for May 1. Getting it right should have been far more important than hitting a target date.

The ESFA cannot leave this until after the election. We are in that crucial time of the year for recruitment to apprenticeships, and if the funding for places is not there, the impact on small businesses engagement will be harmful in both the short and the long term.The impact on literally hundreds of thousands of young people will be devastating to each individual whose parents have encouraged them to work hard.

This damage is an unmerited extra blow to the sector, which still has to deal with the negative impact of end-point assessment, which is not even available for some standards-based apprenticeships now starting, and for which the unregulated costs are likely to be a future front-page story just like HE fees were.

If the government is strong, as we are being told it is, it needs to admit and correct this funding mistake now.