Apprenticeships: No one’s ‘stealing our lunch’ but it’s no easy ride 

For many colleges, the desire to expand the apprenticeship market has declined since the introduction of the levy

For many colleges, the desire to expand the apprenticeship market has declined since the introduction of the levy

16 Jan 2024, 5:00

In 2015, prior to levy funding, then-skills minister Nick Boles came to the Association of Colleges conference to urge the sector to recruit more apprentices and stop ITPs from ‘stealing our lunch’.

Nine years on, his call to action has had little impact. College delivery is stubbornly stuck at under 20 per cent of national delivery. For many colleges, in fact, the appetite to expand the apprenticeship market has declined since the introduction of the levy. Funding rates, rising levels of bureaucracy, EPA and increased risks surrounding inspections and audit all contribute, making the delivery of apprenticeships undesirable for both colleges and the many SMEs that colleges work with.

However, with that back-drop there is one place that seems out of step: Wigan. I arrived at Wigan and Leigh College in 2021 with a rich experience of apprenticeship delivery. I asked about the sales team but was puzzled when the response was one of bemusement. I was told that I wasn’t to worry, sales wasn’t a problem. It was clear there’d be no pounding of pavements or intense marketing; Instead, I had employer engagement officers who were curriculum experts. I was doubtful. I wondered whether, like Dorothy, I was a long way from home.  

Three years later, I can safely say that I now get it. While nationally there has been a 3.5 per cent drop in all starts over the past three years, we have had an increase. 87 per cent of our cohort is level 2 and 3, compared with 66 per cent nationally. 55 per cent are 16 to 18, compared to 23 per cent nationally. In fact, our 16-to-18 cohort has grown significantly: a 56 per cent in-learning increase since 2020/21.

Where we do fall into step with the national picture is with our 19 per cent growth in starts on higher and degree apprenticeships between 21/22 and 22/23. National data from 22/23 shows that our borough punched well above its weight delivering the second highest number of starts in the North West of England. Our apprenticeship income has gone from £4.8 million in 2020/21 to a predicted £7.4 million in 2023/24.

It is far from easy – and it is getting harder

Our commitment to the delivery of apprenticeships is driven solely by meeting the needs of our borough. Wigan needs the social mobility opportunities that levels 2 and 3 apprenticeships offer. And if our employers are going to contribute to economic prosperity, they need the essential higher-level skills that higher and degree apprenticeships offer.

However, we believe our curriculum offer should focus on sector priorities and not try to be all things to all people. High volumes of leadership and management candidates from large corporates are not our thing; we choose to do it the hard way! 72 per cent of our offer is in engineering and construction, rising to 74 per cent of our higher and degree apprenticeship activity. We have specialisms in electrical and power as well as manufacturing, and despite the work with larger employers such as Sellafield, Electricity North West, Scottish Power and several large food manufacturers, the vast majority of our employers are small- and micro-sized, each requiring the same level of care and service.

We received a ‘good’ for apprenticeships when Ofsted came last year and a coveted ‘strong’ for skills. Our apprenticeship achievement is well above national average rates. But it is far from easy and is getting harder. We don’t persevere because a minister has asked us to, and we get frustrated when rises in higher and degree apprenticeships are celebrated without addressing the fall in 16-to-18 and level 2 and 3 participation rates. We think activity should be in response to local need, and levy funds are too precious to not be wisely spent.

No one is going to steal our lunch, because in the current climate we’re not sure anyone actually wants to. But at the heart of our offer is a skills programme that is in high demand by the employers, young people and adults in our borough. In the end, it is support for that in every community that will fully deliver the opportunities apprenticeships can offer.

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One comment

  1. In 2015 when the ‘nicking your lunch’ phrase was wheeled out, it was designed for one purpose – to pit one provider type against another.

    It’s hard to see any positives that flow from that type of strategy and now that we know that billions have been siphoned away from levy receipts, it puts it in another light entirely. It turns out that the treasury was stealing all our lunches, for Colleges, ITPs, employers, industry and apprentices.