DfE seeks brokers to level up SME apprenticeships in the north

Intermediaries told to also focus on boosting numbers of young apprentices

Intermediaries told to also focus on boosting numbers of young apprentices

The government is on the hunt for brokers to boost the number of young and disadvantaged apprentices in small and medium employers in the north. 

A tender worth £2.25 million in total has been launched by the Department for Education to find intermediaries who can come up with “new and innovative ways” of engaging the SME market which is “beyond normal contractor activity”. 

Once developed, the approaches will be tested in a two-year “pathfinder” in the north west, north east and Yorkshire and the Humber focused on digital, manufacturing, adult social care and construction sectors. 

The regions selected were identified in the government’s recent levelling up white paper as having a high prevalence of deprived and low skilled areas. 

Apprenticeship starts in SMEs in these regions have fallen in recent years. Government data shows the number of people starting an apprenticeship between 2018/19 and 2020/21 fell by 58,000 across England, a drop of 19 per cent. The impact has been worst in the north of England, where the number dropped by 23,000 – a 22 per cent decrease. 

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which is chaired by former chancellor George Osborne and represents businesses and politicians from across the north, welcomed the DfE’s efforts to boost apprenticeships in SMEs in the north. 

Sarah Mulholland, the NPP’s head of policy, told FE Week: “We’re supportive of any effort to engage with northern businesses to create a stronger skills base — a critical part of levelling up. 

“It is vital the government takes time to speak to SMEs about what practical measures could make a difference.” 

DfE tender documents state that officials want winning contractors to focus on providing apprenticeships for young people in SMEs, particularly those aged 18 and 19 leaving full-time education. Disadvantaged or underrepresented groups are also being targeted, such as those with learning difficulties, from minority ethnic backgrounds, and who have been in care. 

Skills minister Alex Burghart has made increasing the number of young people taking apprenticeships one of his missions since coming into office in September. 

He told FE Week’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference in March that he “does not want to forget the young” in the face of falling numbers since the introduction of the levy. Burghart later ordered the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to help boost the figures. 

In 2018/19, under 19s made up 24.8 per cent of all starts. This dropped to 23.6 per cent in 2019/20 and in 2020/21 it fell to 20.3 per cent. 

Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said SMEs have “traditionally been strong drivers of apprenticeship starts for young people, as well as at entry level”. 

“If this scheme proves to be successful in the test delivery areas, we hope to see it rolled out nationwide in the future,” she added. 

Bidders have been told they must outline the type of activity and actions they will take to achieve apprentice starts in SMEs that have either never engaged with the apprenticeship service or have not done so in the preceding 24 months. 

“The potential contractor must ensure SMEs gain a better understanding of apprenticeships, including but not limited to the business benefits, the funding, availability of transferred funds, and support available to them and their apprentices,” tender documents state. 

Contractors must then support the SME to identify an appropriate training provider and provide an end-to-end service from registering on the digital apprenticeship service, reserving funding and registering onto Recruit an Apprentice (RAA) to using a levy transfer. 

Winning bidders must also be satisfied that the employers would be confident in engaging with the apprenticeship service in the future without the assistance of the brokerage service. 

Government-approved apprenticeship providers can bid for the work, but they must clearly demonstrate how they will “operate independently of the role as a training provider, offer impartial and independent advice and support, and operate in the best interests of the employers that they are supporting”. 

Bids must be submitted by June 29.

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