Conservative manifesto pledge: Continue with the target of 3m apprenticeship starts by 2020

Mark Dawe argues FOR

Fears over quality are misplaced: three million is a modest target, but the right one, claims Mark Dawe

The Conservatives were right to retain their 2015 pledge of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020. Even without the subsequent levy-related reforms, the original target was always going to be a fairly modest goal, especially if we recall that there were over 2.5 million starts during the coalition government of 2010-15.

Nor does the three million figure present the scale of challenge, or tension over quality, that some observers want us to believe. Three quarters of apprenticeships are delivered by independent training providers, and the latest Ofsted annual report found that 82 per cent of ITPs were good or outstanding. The government’s own ‘Get in, Go far’ campaign also rightly stressed the positive outcomes that apprenticeships generate for both employers and young people.

The worries about using starts as a target have been overstated. We are not suggesting that they represent the ideal measure of success, but a switch to a programme completions target would be a mistake.

Since the May administration entered office, ministers have referred to apprenticeships as a “ladder of opportunity” and a driver for social mobility, and AELP has always stressed the programme’s importance in terms of social inclusion. If we moved to a completions target, then employers and providers would shift their recruitment of apprentices to only those most likely to complete, when presently there are thousands of young people who start an apprenticeship from a position of disadvantage who then make amazing progress and go on to build a successful career for themselves.

In the same vein, ministers deserve credit for recognising that level two apprenticeships provide a vital starting point for many young people and the social mobility agenda demands that there should be no departure from this policy. If the new ministers get a grip on the current reform issues after the election, employers and young people can look forward to benefiting from quality apprenticeships up to level seven.

The Conservative manifesto started by setting out ‘five giant challenges’ that Britain has to meet and we believe that skills and apprenticeships have a fundamental role to play in overcoming all of them as follows:

  • The need for a strong economy: Improved productivity through increased skills
  • Brexit and a changing world: Support many industries in replacing their workforce by making lower-level skills training available
  • Enduring social divisions: Availability of training opportunities no matter where you live, whatever your starting point
  • An ageing society: Making retraining and apprenticeship opportunities available to anyone whatever the size of employer

Fast-changing technology: Proper investment in digital skills development at all levels, embedded in all programmes.

The emphasis on making opportunities available wherever you live is why AELP is pressing for properly sustained and guaranteed support in the non-levy-paying business community – which is not just a reference to apprenticeships. But above all, the three million apprenticeships target should not be achieved with apprentices only employed by levy-payers. We need guaranteed apprenticeship funding for non-levy-paying SMEs of at least the current level of £1 billion per year and the non-levy-payers on the apprenticeship system as soon as possible in order to generate a genuine employer-led system. An immediate review of the impact of employer contributions on the SME apprenticeship starts is also required.

On quality, the Institute for Apprenticeships should work with key stakeholders to ensure that all existing and new apprenticeship standards are fit for purpose, their assessments are valid, reliable and available, and there is adequate funding to deliver a quality programme. Until these criteria are met, apprentices shouldn’t be started on new standards.

 

Mark Dawe is CEO of the Assocation of Employment and Learning Providers