Ofsted boss ‘concerned’ young people losing out as employers cash in on higher apprenticeships

Ofsted’s chief inspector is “concerned” that the rise in higher level apprenticeships is “partly” to blame for the decline in starts for young people at the lower levels.

Addressing delegates at the Annual Apprenticeship Conference (AAC) this afternoon, Amanda Spielman said it was “worrying” that starts at level 2 in 2018/19 were 45 per cent down on 2016/17.

Meanwhile, higher level apprenticeships are “up – massively up – and they have doubled from 16/17 to 18/19, admittedly from a low base”.

She then stated: “We’re concerned that this many new apprenticeships at level 4 or higher is partly why those at level 2 and 3 aren’t coming through. It’s certainly the case that apprenticeship programmes now have an older demographic.

“It is important we increase the numbers of level 2 and 3, as well as increasing the number of young apprentices, as this helps with levelling the playing field.”

Her comments come a week after education secretary Gavin Williamson ordered a review of the level 7 MBA apprenticeship as he is “unconvinced” it provides value for money.

He said he would “rather see funding helping to kick-start careers or level up skills and opportunities”.

The Ofsted boss echoed Williamson sentiment this morning, saying “we need to level the playing field”.

“For some people, this ladder [of opportunity] is broken; in fact, some of the lower rungs are missing. For so many young people, this is their entry level into the workplace. Getting the basics right is vital. Going into some occupations at level 4 without a grounding in the basics can set some people up to fail.

“I’m concerned about level 2 apprenticeships more broadly.”

She noted how the higher-level apprenticeships are “overwhelmingly in the fields of business administration” and “we are concerned about the trend in big, levy-contributing organisations to offer apprenticeships to existing staff, many of whom will have worked there for a while”.

“This effectively turns apprenticeships into a staff development programme. They may well be mitigating skill gaps in management and team leadership, and this may be an initial response to spending the levy, but I would hope that this doesn’t become the norm. If the levy develops mainly to help those who are already in work, it doesn’t help those at the bottom of the ladder.”

Spielman also reiterated concerns first raised in Ofsted’s 2018 annual report, which warned the levy was being spent on apprenticeships it called “rebadged” graduate schemes.

“We know that relabelling existing programmes as apprenticeships to allow them to be paid for by the levy fund is a practice that is sucking money into one place at the expense of another,” she said today.

“We’ve seen very different funding allocations for different sectors. I am concerned that in some instances levy funding is not being used as the policy designers expected.”

The shadow skills minister, Emma Hardy, went even further in her speech at AAC this morning, calling for an end to full funding for adults enrolling on a degree apprenticeship.

Concerns over the rise of higher level apprenticeships at the expense of low level opportunities, such as for the level 2 in business administration, is set to be discussed further on day two AAC when Jennifer Coupland, the new chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, will deliver her first public address to the sector.