Mixed welcome for older apprenticeships ‘policy shift’

An apparent shift in FE funding policy that could see a rise in the number of 24+ apprentices has received a mixed welcome.

In March last year the agency said, in its 2012/13 final allocations methodology briefing note, that it would “not award any growth” for older apprenticeships.

But an agency spokesperson confirmed to FE Week that it was now “accepting” providers’ requests for more money to deliver apprenticeships for 24+ learners.

However, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) denied there had been a change in funding policy, saying apprenticeships “remain an all-age programme”.

The risk, given we’re in a world of limited funding, is that if there is more money available for older apprentices, then there will be less available for younger people.

Nevertheless, the apparent shift to accept older apprenticeship funding requests was welcomed by Unionlearn, the education arm of the TUC, but its spokesperson added: “We are concerned that many current apprenticeships for adults are little more than accreditation of the work they are currently doing and contain little in the way of progression.”

Just five months ago Business Secretary Vince Cable (pictured) wrote to the agency explaining how he wanted younger apprentice numbers boosted. He did the same last year.

But three weeks after his most recent letter, the agency said its priority was funding apprenticeships at all ages — and it has now produced a new form in which extra cash for 24+ apprenticeships can be requested.

The BIS spokesperson told FE Week: “As a result of simplifying the funding system across FE we have introduced greater freedoms and flexibilities for colleges and providers.

“This will put them in a better position to respond to the needs of learners, employers and communities to whom they are becoming increasingly accountable.”

The agency invites providers at the end of quarters one, two and three to ask for additional funding for their programmes.

The ‘additional’ funding is cash allocated to independent learning providers that hasn’t been spent and so is moved around the wider FE and skills system, including colleges, to meet demand.

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said: “We won’t know for a few weeks whether there is any money available to meet these requests but it is sensible for the agency to standardise and formalise this process.”

Stewart Segal, Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “We support the need to respond to all age growth in the programme, but we assume that business cases where additional 16 to 24 apprenticeship starts are planned will get first priority.”

In June, FE Week reported on fears at the Department for Education that 16 to 18-year-olds were being squeezed out of potential apprenticeships by “competition” from older applicants.

And in July, FE Week reported how the number of 16 to 18 apprenticeship starts was falling against the backdrop of a boom in the overall numbers — from 457,200 in 2010/11 to 520,600 last academic year.

Tony Dolphin (Pictured), chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said: “This government — as did the previous one — is making a lot about big increases in overall apprenticeship numbers, but the group for which apprenticeships really should apply is seeing numbers falling.”

He added: “The risk, given we’re in a world of limited funding, is that if there is more money available for older apprentices, then there will be less available for younger people.

“It’s a weakness of the vocational education and training system in general that the government sets targets for the numbers of qualifications and asks these quangos to deliver those targets and the targets then go to providers to find ways of delivering them.”