The target has been set and the election won — now the government must set about achieving 3m apprenticeships. But what exactly is being aimed at and is it even the right target, asks Nick Linford.

As the dust settles on a general election result few predicted, the FE and skills sector will be considering the implications of a Conservative government.

Above all else, the manifesto commitment to fund 3m apprenticeship starts over the next five years now takes centre stage. In fact, even outside of our sector, it is arguably the government’s top priority given the newly-elected Prime Minister listed it first in his maiden speech.

So before waking up to the reality and potential hangover of the task ahead, let us start with a raised glass and sector back-slap. The government wants to invest further in our sector and in their own words; apprenticeships support young people to acquire the skills they need.

With the self-congratulation out of the way it is time to consider if the 3m starts is the right target and how it might be achieved.

The Conservatives have chosen to use apprenticeship starts as their target, which is a figure published in official Statistical First Releases. This means within the FE sector it is already well understood and credible as a measure. However, how many listening to the Prime Minister would realise this 3m is neither the number of people, nor does it mean they passed the apprenticeship?

Hard as it may be to believe, the number of individuals participating in apprenticeships has never been published

Firstly, many of the 3m starting an advanced apprenticeship are being counted for the second time, having already achieved an intermediate apprenticeship.

In fact, apprentices joining the accountancy profession often enters at level two and progresses to level three and then continues on to level four. They would be counted three times towards the 3m target.

Hard as it may be to believe, the number of individuals participating in apprenticeships has never been published, and efforts by FE Week to find out the number through a freedom of information request have been rebuffed.

Surely it would be better to count people benefiting — let’s call them ‘apprenticeship entrants’ — to avoid this double or triple counting. This would also save me shouting “wrong!” every time a politician refers to the number of ‘people’ doing an apprenticeship.

The second issue with the target is that it only counts how many apprentices started, which simply means they were on the course for 42 or more days. Last year, a third of all apprenticeship leavers failed to successfully complete the course.

This means we would be counting 1m failed apprenticeships towards the 3m target. How many politicians realise this and would it not be better to be chasing a target that only counts those apprentices who actually graduate?

To achieve 3m starts in five years will require an average of 600,000 starts every year, with an emphasis on supporting the ‘young’, if the Conservative manifesto is to be believed. This is a huge challenge, given last year apprenticeship starts fell 14 per cent to 440,400, of which just 278,900 were aged under 24.

The returning Skills Minister, Nick Boles, is therefore faced with an immediate dilemma. Cop out, and chase growth the easy and cheap way by encouraging more adult apprentice starts, many of whom will be large employers with existing employees. Or stick to the commitment to support the young and incentivise or force more large and small employers to recruit 16 to 23-year-old apprentices?

It is also worth keeping an eye on the development of Degree Apprenticeships, which featured in the Conservative manifesto. For example, might a quick win be to simply rebadge nursing degrees as apprenticeships?

Then there are higher level apprenticeships, but should we be spending public money subsidising level six professional training at law firms and banks? More clues are due soon, with an Apprenticeship Bill to be announced in the Queen’s speech.

Before Nick Boles and the Skills Funding Agency panic and take the cop out route to 3m starts, we need to quickly debate whether ‘starts’ represent the best target to chase and how to ensure many more young people participate.

The government can’t create apprenticeships; only employers can do that, so they need to do their bit too.