Recent evidence that unemployment rates among black 16 to 24-year-old men available for work have risen to 56 per cent – double what it was three years ago – is appalling news. But even worse is the growing evidence that the government is falling short in its efforts to tackle the root causes and direct attention where it is due.

Everything is now focused on two big ideas – Apprenticeships and the Work Programme. We in the Network for Black Professionals invested much time, resources and energy in helping government shape the two-year Diversity in Apprenticeship pilot programme that ends this July. But after a steady rise in BME participation in such programmes, it now appears to be faltering.

Government plans to cut apprenticeship funding rates by two per cent next year for 16 to 18-year-olds, while leaving the adult apprenticeship funding rates unchanged, will only make it harder to tackle diversity problems.

When the disastrous ONS unemployment statistics were announced, officials at the Department for Work and Pensions were quick to defend their performance. Every effort was being made to give all young people the right skills and experience to match them to vacancies, a DWP spokesperson insisted.

“This includes the Work Programme, which assesses people as individuals to discover what barriers are preventing them from getting a job and will then work with them overcome these problems. We are also spending £1bn over the next three years to help young jobseekers by creating around half a million opportunities through work experience and apprenticeships.”

Is the programme really focused on the specialist support learners from BME backgrounds need to address their specific issues and to move employment?

The lack of referrals to the NBP for exactly this type of support would suggest not. Nor are adequate steps being taken to deal with factors that deter young BME adults from apprenticeships.

There are many questions. For example, how many of the opportunities cited by DWP will those from a BME background be able to take-up? Was the increased intake in BME apprenticeships due to the focus from the Diversity pilots or what? And when they end in July, will the early increases we saw continue?

We will have to wait until the summer for detailed analysis and figures on the impact of the Diversity in Apprenticeship pilots. But it is already telling that the record black unemployment rates are among precisely that group at whom the pilot initiative was aimed. What does this say about the apprenticeships?
First, it is clear by the government’s own admission that the big push on apprenticeships included too many questionable training schemes under this label.

Second, as the IPPR report, Rethinking Apprenticeships, and FE Week’s detailed analyses have shown, resources were targeted at the wrong age group, with investment in training for adults already in work, at the expense of young people in desperate need.

And, as the IPPR report shows, while BME communities account for 14 per cent of the 18-24 age group in the overall population, they account for less than eight per cent of apprenticeship places.

Third, it is still not clear what apprenticeships are for – are they to raise skills levels or solve the unemployment problem? Hopefully both but, whichever, we know that young people from BME backgrounds are being given particularly short measures.

We in the NBP will continue to support whatever initiatives are necessary to address diversity. Our proven track record over the decade in tackling BME under-representation in college leadership is now reaching out to all education sectors and the wider public services.

We have secured contracts to reduce re-offending through mentoring for offenders, assisting ex-offenders back into education and training, and the partnership’s impact on the Diversity in Apprenticeships programme was acknowledged by politicians in all parties.

But we need coherent apprenticeship and employment policies built in sustained investment not false economies, targeted at the most vulnerable groups.

Robin Landman OBE, chief executive of the Network for Black Professionals

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