The publication of the delayed Skills Funding Agency Grant Letter loomed over National Apprenticeships Week (which starts on March 9) a bit like … well, anything else that looms.
Whether it was a further cut of 25 per cent to the non-apprenticeship Adult Skills Budget, the 25 per cent increase in the budget for 24+ loans while learner numbers plummet or the £33m cut in learner support funding, it might be a little more difficult for some to get too excited about apprenticeships.
One group of people who have been particularly excited about apprenticeships over the last couple of weeks has been Labour and Conservative politicians, with leaders of both parties giving key education policy speeches recently.
An extra 3m funded apprenticeships were promised by Prime Minister David Cameron at a Conservative Party policy speech at the end of January, with funding coming from removing housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds on Jobseekers’ Allowance and reducing the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 per household.
Labour sparked controversy in the sector in February over their plans to only fund apprenticeships at and above level three, leaving us to speculate as to what would happen to the half a million apprentices currently studying at level two.
We should also keep an eye on what’s going on in Northern Ireland and Wales whose devolved governments are already set to implement this policy.
Alongside this, Labour leader Ed Miliband alluded to a minimum academic standard young people would need to achieve to gain access to an apprenticeship, causing some to worry about that the door to apprenticeships would be slammed shut in the faces of young people without a good set of A-levels. Oh, and of course pledging an extra 80,000 apprenticeships a-year for the numbers race.
The Liberal Democrats have put themselves in a fascinating position on apprentice pay.
In October, Business Secretary Vince Cable wrote to the Low Pay Commission (LPC) suggesting that the apprentice rate of the National Minimum Wage should be abolished, and apprentices should instead be entitled to the regular ‘age appropriate’ minimum wage.
Unfortunately though, the LPC rejected Dr Cable’s recommendation, instead offering an extra 8p to the apprentice minimum wage, bringing it up to £2.80 from October. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is expected to respond formally to the LPC recommendations later this month and all eyes will be on the Secretary of State to see if he’ll abolish the apprentice rate as he wanted to, or bow to the LPC’s recommendation.
I hadn’t realised that apprentices who are paid below £111 a-week were not entitled to statutory sick pay
Call me naive, but if I was him, with two months left in office, I’d go for the former.
We don’t talk about the welfare of apprentices enough. I was struck by the story of an apprentice I met at the Association of Colleges’ conference in November who works weekends as well as his full time apprenticeship to make ends meet.
Thanks to the National Union of Students (NUS) Forget Me Not report [see page 5] we’ve now got something to work with, but it’s hard to find any response from the sector on this.
One of the many great advantages of being an apprentice should be having access to the benefits of being a student, and an employee. I hadn’t realised that apprentices who are paid below £111 a-week were not entitled to statutory sick pay, so the NUS suggestion that statutory sick pay regulations are amended so eligibility is based on hours worked rather than earnings sounds sensible to me.
My message for National Apprenticeship Week 2015 is this; let’s celebrate apprentices, their tutors and their employers.
But let’s stop making out that the ‘quality’ of an apprenticeship stops at how shiny their ‘gold standard’ qualification is, but actually start to look at the quality of learning and working experience.
Oh, and if anyone’s got any polling on how impressive the electorate find wrangling over apprenticeship numbers, do let me know.