Whitehall chiefs, headteachers and local government leaders should have their performance and pay incentives linked to hitting the apprenticeship target, writes Tom Bewick

Did you hear about this year’s April Fools’ joke over at the Department for Education? A senior official walked into the secretary of state’s office and said: “Minister, I’m pleased to report that we’ve met every single target on apprenticeships that we set ourselves in 2015.”

“That’s amazing! How come?”, replied Gavin Williamson.

“We haven’t really, minister, we’ve missed every single one of them, but don’t worry, we’ll just change the goal posts and give ourselves another year!”

As FE Week reported recently, nearly all parts of the public sector – other than the armed forces – have failed to meet the 2.3 per cent target that was first enshrined in statutory guidance on April 7, 2017.

The original reporting period and timeframe to comply with the law expired this week, on March 31, 2021.

Rather like a flaky student who regularly posts a late essay under the lecturer’s door at five past midnight, Whitehall knew it would fail to meet its own target.

So, it has simply taken the liberty of self-extending the deadline. Those more sympathetic to the mandarins will, of course, cite the vagaries of the pandemic. Cut them some slack, they’ll say. 

But I’m less generous.

‘All the usual buzzwords’

As with any serious delinquent, you have to look at the pattern of behaviour. This is not an isolated incident. The big ambition for apprenticeships was actually stated in 2015, when the old Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published its Vision 2020 document.

It was drafted on behalf of ministers by Jennifer Coupland, boss at the current Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, in the days when she was still in the department.

The vision statement was designed to crown the 2015 Conservative manifesto target of 3 million apprentices by 2020 (the target that’s been missed).

Whitehall has simply taken the liberty of self-extending the deadline

The six chapters contained all the usual buzzword bingo lines we’ve become accustomed to reading.

Employers would be “in the driving seat”. Expansion would take place while “quality would improve”.

There would be a “simpler funding system” designed to incentivise more firms to offer apprenticeships, “particularly for younger people” at risk of unemployment. Indeed, under-25s were to be the main focus of the expansion effort.

Five years on, the numbers of starts for young people has plummeted, from 123,000 in 2016-17 to 76,300 by 2020 (pre-pandemic).

Crucially, ministers promised that the public sector would “lead by example”, by meeting the statutory minimum 2.3 per cent target.

The fact that this and many other apprenticeship policy targets since 2015 have been missed is what is so frustrating about the government’s cavalier attitude.

‘Enforce the target’

The bigger picture is this: England already has one of lowest numbers of apprentices proportionally to employed persons among comparable countries, at 18 per 1,000 employees (2019 figures).

Germany has a ratio twice the England rate, at 40 apprentices per 1,000. Even Australia had a much higher recorded ratio, of 39 per 1,000 employees.

This really matters, because if the government can’t deliver as an employer, operating via the public sector (schools, local government and hospitals), then how on earth can it be a moral leader when it comes to exhorting the private sector to hire apprentices? 

The Treasury has belatedly realised this, with the recent Budget announcement to gear more financial incentives to new apprenticeship and traineeship hires, including helping those laggard public sector employers.

Ultimately, I believe the 2.3 per cent target needs to be enforced in the following ways: permanent secretaries of Whitehall departments should have their performance bonus payments explicitly linked to the achievement of the apprenticeship target.

The same for quango chiefs, headteachers and local government leaders.

Only when there are some real personal and financial repercussions for failing in this endeavour will we find out whether those entrusted to lead our public sector are really up to the job.