DfE must act to prevent the apprenticeships system from falling APARt

A decision in 2021 has frozen the apprenticeships system in time just as the pace of change accelerates – with worrying consequences

A decision in 2021 has frozen the apprenticeships system in time just as the pace of change accelerates – with worrying consequences

9 Mar 2024, 5:00

It was fantastic to see employers of all sizes and politicians of all parties come together to celebrate the huge achievements of apprentices and the power of applied learning to transform during the recent National Apprenticeships Week. However, our system is at risk of wasting some of the important gains it has made and falling back again.

Apprenticeships are a huge asset to Britain. But as the digital economy and new technologies such as artificial intelligence transform the world of work, there is today a significant risk that apprenticeship opportunities may be unable to keep pace.

Almost two years ago, in May 2021, the Department for Education (DfE) took the decision to close the Apprenticeships Provider and Assessment Register (APAR) – the list of organisations able to deliver these vital apprenticeship opportunities. It has been effectively frozen in time ever since.

The implications of this decision are profound and far-reaching, particularly for apprenticeships in digital skills: by definition a fast-moving sector where agility and adaptability are not just advantageous but essential. In an age where technology evolves at breakneck speed and the frontiers of AI expand by the day, the rigidity of the current system has come to stand as a stark anachronism, a relic at odds with the dynamism of the digital age.

As a training provider which has helped thousands of learners gain the skills they need to thrive in the digital economy through coding bootcamps, we see first-hand how this damaging decision is constraining the quality and quantity of provision in the UK. And particularly so for the new and emerging skills needs crucial to fuel the growth of the tech sector, as those CoGrammar caters for.

More than 2,500 students have graduated from the government-funded bootcamps and short courses we’ve run in the past year, and we’re also partnering directly with Russell Group universities and employers. But, as things stand, learners going through the apprenticeship route are missing out on these life-enhancing opportunities. As long as the APAR keeps gathering dust, this will continue to be the case.

The rigidity of our system stands as a stark anachronism

Just last week, the government published data showing that graduates of these programmes have the potential to earn 55 per cent more than the national average, with average salaries in technology roles exceeding £70,000. Empowering learners of all ages and career stages with the ability to code professionally opens the door to new job opportunities, whether transitioning to an entirely new career path or advancing to a more senior role.

The current APAR system acts more like an exclusive club than a gateway to opportunity, stifling new, innovative provisions from entering the fray. This exclusivity not only limits diversity but also dampens the spirit of competition necessary for elevating standards and aligning them with the evolving needs of employers and the workforce.

The government is absolutely right to keep a laser focus on quality in provision, but there are also straightforward solutions which could ensure the quality guarantee of an apprenticeship is maintained whilst also allowing for competition and innovation.

One route is to remove any existing provider deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, or those not actively delivering apprenticeships, as well as enforcing higher standards and vetting processes for providers on APAR.

At the same time, ministers could choose to focus on new providers in priority skills areas so that provision keeps pace with technological change. To keep apprenticeship opportunities aligned with evolving labour market demands, DfE could publish an up-to-date list of priority sectors and, where possible, provide a ‘fast track’ route for new providers in these sectors – particularly where providers have a proven track record of capacity to deliver at scale, meet benchmarks on completion rates and quality of delivery, or are existing suppliers to DfE for other programmes.

The question is not whether the apprenticeship system can afford to change, but whether it can afford not to. As the digital revolution marches on, the need for a more flexible, responsive, and forward-looking apprenticeship framework has never been more urgent. The future beckons—a future where apprenticeships are not just pathways to employment but conduits to innovation and engines of economic dynamism.

To deliver this more inclusive, competitive, and dynamic apprenticeship ecosystem, DfE should first revisit its stance.

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