Why are apprenticeships singled out for special treatment? The benefits of other qualifications are enormous and can be tested, says Graham Taylor, if we let levy payers to decide where to put their money.

We’re currently obsessed with apprenticeships and the emerging minutiae, which sometimes means we can’t see the wood for the trees. So let’s just take a minute and look at what we are trying to achieve.

Essentially, the government wants higher productivity and economic growth. That much is uncontroversial. However, most economists acknowledge that both are difficult to measure – especially productivity in a modern economy; how do you cope with the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Uber, for starters?

But putting that aside for a second, if there is a causal link between qualifications gained and productivity, then surely that should hold for all qualifications? The most recent government analysis on the subject examined GCSEs, A-levels and apprenticeships, and concluded they were all associated with significantly higher lifetime productivity. But what about other qualifications?

Why are apprenticeships singled out for special treatment?

It’s the customer (not the government or me) who should decide which are most relevant and helpful to them. And business will have their own KPIs to judge return on investment in training. So why is the government so obsessed with apprenticeships? Hypothecating funding and spending millions on TV adverts to promote one training route distorts the market. Building over-complex management systems is not a good use of taxpayers’ money.

The government expects to raise £3bn from the levy, effectively a payroll tax for big organisations. However, businesses will want their money back through high-quality training that demonstrably improves productivity, as well as freedom in how to spend their money, without the apprenticeships-only restriction.

Colleges are levy-paying businesses too. When we offered our training manager an extra £45k (our net college levy) for next year’s CPD budget, she didn’t mention apprenticeships once. So we’ll have to rename our professional and technical programmes, which work best for our staff CPD, as apprenticeships. 

This is an artificial way of meeting the government’s £3m target, but everyone will do it. And here’s another way of shoehorning more in: NVQs are no longer funded, but NVQs under the apprenticeship banner are; strange but true.

And, of course, funding is stacked in favour of apprenticeships (with acknowledgements to FE Week’s campaign to get funding rates right). The learner doesn’t want to pay – witness the dire take-up of loans for apprenticeships and the swift policy reversal. But loans are now the norm for ‘other’ 19+ advanced qualifications, so why are apprenticeships singled out for separate funding and special systems? Because there’s a target, not because this is what works best for UK PLC.

Are adult learners sacrificial lambs at the altar of apprenticeships?

The tragedy is that there are millions fewer adult learners in this country compared with 10 years ago. Between 2013/14 and 2014/15 alone, adult learners in FE fell by 315,900 (11 per cent) despite a 1.3 per cent increase in the number of adult apprentices. With the 28 per cent cut in ‘other’ funding in 2015/16, the fall will be even greater. Are they sacrificial lambs at the altar of apprenticeships?

I believe lifelong learning is a good thing. But the dirigiste approach – that (funded) learning must be purely skills-related – is not only flawed, but impossible to enforce. Has anyone attempted to count the number of adult learners who come to adult classes for work reasons (“I’m taking GCSE French because I have to speak to my boss in Paris every Friday”)? 

Warwick Institute for Employment Research considers that adult education could disappear by 2020, “because adult and community learning providers continue to be ignored by the area reviews and skills devolution processes”. 

This may be an extreme prediction but what is certainly true, is that the economic and social costs of losing millions of adult learners has been overlooked. Apprenticeships are part of the solution but should not be given special treatment. Let’s not forget the millions of adult learners who study ‘other’ qualifications, who need our help and support. 

The benefits are enormous and can be tested, if you allow levy payers to decide where to put their money.


Graham Taylor is principal and chief executive at New College Swindon