AAC 2023: We’re at a pivotal moment to reshape apprenticeships

The Annual Apprenticeship Conference 2023 might be over, but from functional skills to social mobility, there's a lot to do make apprenticeships even better, writes Kirstie Donnelly

The Annual Apprenticeship Conference 2023 might be over, but from functional skills to social mobility, there's a lot to do make apprenticeships even better, writes Kirstie Donnelly

15 Mar 2023, 16:35

So, the ninth Annual Apprenticeship Conference has drawn to a close. And what a conference it was! As the co-chair, it was great to see the energy and the right topics being discussed.

All of us were clear: it’s our time to act now to reshape the system for the future. At best, the apprenticeship system needs some tweaks and at worst a complete overhaul. We know that’s not what this government want to hear but it’s plain and simple fact.

There is a rising chorus of employer voices demanding change. With a general election looming and pencils being sharpened for manifestos that will shape our future, many are waiting with bated breath to ask, what next? 

During the conference, IFATE CEO Jennifer Coupland talked to the need for us to all be confident and positive about the apprenticeships brand, and there were no arguments with that. We all believe in their transformative power and want them to succeed. 

It’s precisely because we care so deeply that we are calling for change. None of us want to see the apprenticeship system fail, but we can’t ignore the facts. Employers are telling us that the system doesn’t work properly for them.  They are voting with their feet, as evidenced by the significant drop in apprenticeship starts since the levy was introduced. It is a dereliction of duty to ignore this.  

Another case for change was in the excellent debate with leaders from the hospitality sector. They detailed the enormous challenges they are facing in filling job vacancies and the significant impact this is having on their sector. They called out, as employers from across many sectors have also done, for a broader skills levy that allows them to spend their money on shorter courses, alongside much valued apprenticeships. The message was clear, we need other skills interventions alongside apprenticeships now to cope with damaging labour and skills shortages.  

In the months and years ahead, we need to address this so we can create a skills system that totally lives up to its potential and that allows employers to get the skilled people they need and supports people to get the skills to thrive and contribute throughout their lifelong careers.

Our hospitality speakers also expressed significant concern about the fact that level 2 apprenticeships were at risk, as they form a critical pathway into careers in their sector leading to careers as chefs, baristas, brewers and hotel managers – to name just a few. As we all know, level 2 apprenticeships support social mobility, allowing people who might not have achieved in school to access opportunities that can allow them to succeed in the future. Let’s hope that the employer voices are listened to, and these important apprenticeships are retained in the future. 

Another common theme linked to social mobility this year were the many calls to amend the requirement to pass functional skills maths and English. Training providers were clear about what a huge barrier this is to many people completing apprenticeships and puts large numbers of people off taking them in the first place. I also heard employers’ express doubts about the validity of these requirements for older workers retraining and ask whether the skills requirements of the apprenticeship could be better matched to the job at hand.

These themes were also some of the hot topics discussed at an employer roundtable lunch I co-hosted with Anthony Impey, chair of DfE’s apprenticeship stakeholder board, during the conference to allow us to really get under the skin of employer thinking. One more radical idea was a skills minister with responsibility across the Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Education, and Department for Business and Trade to provide a much more cohesive approach to skills development going forward. We also talked about how beneficial it would be to have a UK wide skills system in the future.

And finally, the awards gala dinner was a real celebration of all that is good and great about our apprenticeship employers and providers.  Well done again to all the winners

One thing is for certain, in the current climate we are at a pivotal moment to shape policy that could have an impact on millions of lives and secure the long-term future of great apprenticeships.  

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