It seems the three main political parties have fallen out of love with apprenticeships, writes Karen Redhead, and the unintended consequences of reform may not be helping

Four years and two general election campaigns ago, Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats competed to outdo each other on apprenticeships. While the debate has moved to a much wider recognition of the investment further education sorely needs, apprenticeships are no longer centre-stage and the silence is deafening

In 2015, David Cameron pledged to fund three million new apprenticeships to end youth unemployment. Liberal Democrats also pledged to expand apprenticeships, doubling the two million that had been created during the coalition. Labour focused on quality and pledged to create an extra 80,000 apprenticeships a year with a focus on school leavers with higher grades, as an alternative to university or unskilled jobs.

Given the clear intention that young people would be the main beneficiaries of apprenticeship growth, it is hard to fathom how the national reform could have taken such a different turn. Not only did we see contraction instead of growth, but we are also left with significant system issues and soaring costs that are about to exceed available funding. 

The reform also missed the opportunity to support social mobility and has been disastrous for young people and smaller employers. We have already seen stark societal and political effects. People in our communities feel they have been left behind. 

There have been some benefits. The government had been constrained for decades by a deregulated labour market, and the levy could provide an effective mechanism to encourage more employers to train. There has also been greater employer and industry input into the design of standards.

People in our communities feel they have been left behind

However, the market-led approach to reform has resulted in too much training that is too job-specific, with insufficient consideration of the country’s longer-term skills needs. While reform claimed to put employers in the driving seat, this has been far from successful as many employers are already writing off levy costs rather than engaging with a resource-intensive system that does not give them what they need. 

Whether or not apprenticeship reform makes a late entry to this campaign, the next government will have to deal with these problems. Here are four recommendations that would vastly improve the situation.

First, as trusted partners and long-standing experts in education and training, it is imperative to work with colleges to smooth out the unintended consequences and refocus on what will be urgently needed in a post-Brexit economy. A more inclusive reform process would lead to better solutions and a greater level of ownership and commitment from all participants.

Second, there must be enough funding in place to support the reform, and it should prioritise places for 16-to-19-year-olds and apprentices of all ages without a level 5 qualification. Arrangements for non-levy funding are unreliable and leading to a start-stop approach, unhelpful to colleges and employers alike, and rates in important sectors like health and social care need review to ensure these pathways are viable. 

Third, employers are put off by the burden of bureaucracy. Pre-reform, many colleges offered a successful turnkey solutions for employers. If colleges are to reclaim this through “trusted status”, this requires resources, particularly for SMEs, who tend to have smaller numbers of apprentices.  Penalising colleges for minor data mismatches between employer and college records is also unhelpful.

Lastly, definitions of quality need review, and a distinction needs to be made between quality and compliance, informed by everything we know about high-quality teaching and learning.  Apprenticeships have been running for hundreds of years in some sectors without compliance audits and artificial distinctions of on- and off-the-job elements. 

Teaching, learning and assessment are the core business of colleges, which brings us back to the need for a collaborative approach. After all, no policy can be delivered without us.