As an employer of apprentices that has made full use of the levy, I have sometimes found it difficult to understand why more levy-paying businesses haven’t taken advantage of the levy reforms, says Sharon Blyfield

Towards the end of last summer, the number of registrations on the apprenticeship service suddenly jumped to nearly 20,000, which represents the vast majority of employers within the levy’s scope. Perhaps it has just been a question of time for businesses to realise how widely apprenticeships can be used across the workforce.

At Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP), we have, with our engineering apprenticeships, what people would traditionally associate with the programme, but we also recruit young people into merchandising, field sales and business administration. Continued development for all our apprentices is a major benefit to us and them, and all are offered the opportunity to go on and do a degree apprenticeship in engineering, supply-chain management or business management. Every day, we witness the transformation that an apprenticeship can bring to someone’s life while giving us the skilled workforce we need.

Currently, there is too much bureaucracy within the apprenticeship system

This explains why we don’t want to see the government start introducing controls on how we spend our levy, while recognising that the demands on the programme’s overall budget are now throwing up some significant challenges.

Talking to our training-provider partners and AELP, it has become increasingly apparent that there was a group of large levy-paying employers, including several household brands, who were concerned that the government’s levy review might lead to significant changes. Our consolidated view is to leave the levy alone in terms of what employers can do with the funding.

This week, 15 big-name employers from the public and private sectors, both in manufacturing and services, signed and published a statement to this effect. We have made clear that any changes should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. A top priority is that apprenticeships must provide unconstrained entry points into employment, which will vary from employer to employer, and job to job. For many businesses, level 2 is vital; however, for other employers, it could be any other level up to level 7, or at a range of levels.

Degree apprenticeships are very attractive to us and without the student debt attached, they have become an inclusive means of progression for many people who have been put off by the traditional higher education routes. Therefore we must find a way of keeping them while making the overall programme sustainable.

For those of us who are using up our levy entitlement, the levy transfer isn’t really an option, and in any case, non-levy-paying SMEs are now being moved on to the digital service, where they can access funding. But the imminent levy overspend means that this funding is limited, which is a major concern for us, when so many of these businesses form our supply chains.

Our group is therefore happy to support the call for a standalone non-levy budget of £1.5 billion and we hope that the government will live up to its promises that skills will feature strongly in the March Budget.

At the same time, apprentices aged 16 to 18 should not be treated differently from other young people of the same age group in the education system; they should be funded separately out of the DfE 16-18 budget, regardless of where they work, or the apprenticeship programme they choose to undertake.

Currently, there is too much bureaucracy within the apprenticeship system. For instance, there needs to be a higher level of trust between levy payers and the government to deliver effective off-the-job training. One suggestion would be for an upfront plan, Ofsted inspections and live reporting from apprentices to replace much of the form filling.

We would welcome steady progress on these fronts to obviate the need for significant reform of the levy and build on the successful foundations achieved thus far.