We at the IAPG seek to build an apprenticeship system that boosts both individual success and UK productivity, writes Neil Carmichael.

Ministers have rightly been focusing on the apprenticeship system in England over recent years as we face extraordinary change in the face of multiple challenges. These include: low productivity; skills shortages; changing skills needs; increased automation; demographic change; an ageing workforce, and the uncertainties of Brexit.

In the face of all the above, the Department for Education wants to transform apprenticeships to better meet employer skills needs, to create opportunities for apprentices to progress in their careers, and to draw apprentices from a wider range of social and demographic groups.

Additionally, employers are more engaged and there is more commitment and enthusiasm from a range of stakeholders. Yet despite all this, we know the apprenticeship system is experiencing its fair share of challenges. One of the key ones is the apprenticeship levy and whether it is adequately supporting the needs of all employers. This was the focus of the first roundtable discussion held by the Independent Apprenticeship Policy Group last month, which I chair.

This expert group has been brought together to provide a clear and independent overview of the problems facing the UK apprenticeship system and to generate practical solutions.

Bureaucracy can be a burden to small companies without access to an HR department

Members, who represent a wide array of interested parties that includes providers, employers and employer representative bodies, and professional and trade associations, focused on five key areas around how the levy is working: quality, affordability, SME engagement, the levels of training available and devolution.

What they found in the main was that the levy had had a positive impact on the quality of training but there are questions about how it can better support more flexible “forward-looking” quality training.

On the question of affordability, the group questioned whether apprenticeships received the necessary financial support from the levy and the accompanying funding system that sits behind it. Also, is the process used by the Education and Skills Funding Agency for allocating funds to non-levy payers fit for purpose?

We then turned to the ability of small employers to engage with, and benefit from, apprenticeships, and the bureaucracy that can prove to be a major burden to companies that are too small to have access to an HR department or support functions.

Another area discussed was “levels” of training available under the levy: while large employers may prefer to train existing staff at higher levels, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) may benefit more from support for newer and/or more junior team members. This led us to question whether the levy should distinguish between supporting higher and lower-level apprenticeships, and, if so, how.

Finally, we looked at how the different apprenticeships arrangements under devolution can raise significant hurdles for someone trying to build a UK-wide workforce development strategy.

The group will continue to hold a number of events in 2019 to bring together evidence and interview witnesses. We will look at the provider system, end-point assessment, stakeholder roles and responsibilities, and progression opportunities for apprentices. A full and final report with our findings and our practical recommendations for change will be published in time for Apprenticeship Week early in 2020.

We want to hear from the experts working within the system to help ministers understand how we can build on the huge efforts made by all involved to ensure the apprenticeship system works.

To join us in this dialogue to contribute to a successful and long-term vision for apprenticeships, visit our website or contact us on IAPG@pearson.com

Neil Carmichael, chair of the Independent Apprenticeship Group, an independent expert group sponsored by Pearson