Having long called for a pre-apprenticeship programme, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers can claim a victory in the government’s new traineeship scheme but, says Martin Dunford, there is much still to do

We may be two years away from a general election, but the political manoeuvring has already started.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have had policy groups looking hard at education and skills and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) has contributed to both.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are increasingly pointing to the recent growth of apprenticeships as a trump card to take to the hustings.

We feel our 2013 national conference is the right time to start feeding our policy input into all of the main parties.

Our policy recommendations range from the education schools should provide to prepare young people for the world of work, to the training adults need whether they are in or out of work.

We are acutely conscious our case for the taxpayer to continue investing in skills coincides with the government’s Spending Review this month.

It was therefore reassuring to hear the Business Secretary Vince Cable tell the BBC recently that we need to be investing more in training to support the economic recovery.

At the heart of our argument is the belief state support for employment and skills programmes yields clear economic advantages.

This is especially pertinent to the future of our young people, nearly a million of whom are unemployed.

State support for employment and skills programmes yields clear economic advantages”

Our manifesto document says that to make more of these young people work-ready, they need schools to focus on a range of skills including English, maths and soft skills for employability that cover, for example, attitude, team-working and problem-solving.

Long before the current government entered office, we were making the case for a preparatory training programme that could lead to full apprenticeship or employment for young people who have left school with few or no qualifications.

So we are pleased traineeships are being introduced. However, it is disappointing they are only available to 16 to 18-year-olds, and we are already receiving feedback from members that this range limits the programme’s appeal to employers.

The government should extend the range to 24-year-olds as soon as possible.

Where statutory education has not been able to succeed for pupils (and according to the Department for Education (DfE), 40.1 per cent failed to achieve English and maths GCSEs at grade A* to C in 2012), we are advocating that government should fund basic employability skills and competencies up to level two, regardless of age, beyond which responsibility for learning should be shared between employers, learners and the state.

Another policy win for the AELP has been to persuade the DfE to introduce programmes for young people that do not stipulate qualifications as the only measure of success.

Securing a job is now regarded by the DfE as a positive outcome for a 16 to 18-year-old and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) now agree also.

Nevertheless, with many AELP members having contracts with all three departments, there remains scope for more coherent procurement to avoid fragmented and inconsistent contract management.

High up the government’s priority list has been the ‘quality agenda’. We have always been in the vanguard of promoting continuous improvement even for such highly successful provision as apprenticeships.

While programme review and modification will always feature, the most important element is to ensure scarce government funds are rigorously targeted on the highest priority provision (apprenticeships and traineeships) and targeted funding is made available to providers with demand from employers best able to deliver success.

The level playing field necessary for this to happen is undoubtedly better balanced than in the past, but we are not there yet. We cannot continue to have providers of any type underperforming — yet retaining funding — while others are unable to obtain the resources they need to meet the immediate demand from employers, potential apprentices and those needing a traineeship to avoid joining the unacceptably high cohort of NEETs.

Martin Dunford OBE, chief executive of Skills Training UK and chair of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers