Karin Smyth MP reflects on key issues with apprenticeship reforms that the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee is pushing for more information on.

Post 16 education is vitally important to the UK, and to my Bristol South constituency.

It’s always one of the issues raised with me by parents, carers and grandparents, and that’s why I’ve made it one of my key areas for focus.

Bristol South is the place in the UK where young people are least likely to go onto higher education, a stark fact that surprises many who know the city. This makes vocational courses and particularly apprenticeships even more important.

I fully support the government’s three million apprenticeships by 2020 target, and am determined that my constituency gets its fair share. But of course we need to make sure that alongside quantity we also have quality.

As a member of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), I took part in a session [on October 12] looking at the value of the apprenticeships programme. There was plenty to scrutinise: there’s been a lot of change in a short time.

I was pleased that DFE officials are backtracking on proposals to cut funding to colleges and training providers for 16 to 18 year-olds

Firstly, I was pleased that DFE officials are backtracking on proposals to cut funding to colleges and training providers for 16 to 18 year-olds.

I attended the FE Week #SaveOurApprenticeships event in the House last month, hosted by Labour’s Shadow Minister, Gordon Marsden MP and supported by others including David Lammy MP, and heard first-hand from apprenticeship providers how devastating the changes would have been.

FE Week has led a successful campaign and deserves credit for highlighting a measure that would, if implemented, have caused great harm not only to providers, but crucially to the prospects of many young people most needing support.

As we know, the apprenticeship reforms are ambitious and our recent PAC hearing offered an important chance for committee members to probe witnesses, who have been tasked with making these reforms happen.

Issues raised included how success will be measured, how far along the new frameworks are, the potential risks around the new levy and the opportunity for gaming, and the role of the new Institute of Apprenticeships.

I was also pleased that PAC was able to air the under-representation of women apprentices in certain sectors.

Whilst 53 per cent of apprentices are female, we know that women often end up in traditionally low paid jobs, that apprenticeships play a part in shaping this situation.

So there needs to be a real push to get providers to actively encourage more women into sectors in which they’re under-represented.

here needs to be a real push to get providers to actively encourage more women into sectors in which they’re under-represented

It was disappointing to hear from the DFE’s permanent secretary that the government has not set any targets to improve the situation, though officials did agree to take the issue away with a view to looking into it.

PAC has previously considered the financial sustainability of the FE sector and I recognise how important this is to make sure the apprenticeship reforms happen, but we all know that many colleges are struggling. I look forward to the session when PAC revisits this issue.

In addition to the PAC inquiry last week, I also had the opportunity to meet with the minister for apprenticeships and skills, Robert Halfon MP, to ask him directly about the apprenticeship changes. My constituency of Bristol South has few large employers which will pay the new apprenticeships levy, but there are plenty of small and medium sized enterprises hoping to play their part in meeting the three million target, and training current and future employees.

I’ve been raising issues around FE and apprenticeships in the Commons for some time, using prime minister’s question time and questions to the previous skills minister, Nick Boles. 

Apprenticeships remain an issue of vital importance to my constituents and I’ll continue to push the case on their behalf.