Government must work harder to protect the apprenticeship brand

The NAO report reemphasises the criticisms we have made for many months over the Government’s handling of Adult Apprenticeships. The committee shared our concerns that nearly 1 in 5 Adult Apprenticeships lasted less than six months, which we pressed the Government on for months, backed up by the investigative work of FE Week that put this issue on the agenda last year.

This sustained pressure has obliged the Skills Minister John Hayes to introduction minimum one year duration for Adult Apprenticeships in April after initially only applying this for 16-18 year olds last December.

It remains clear that many of these additional Adult Apprenticeship starts are merely rebranded placements which would previously been delivered via Train to Gain, again highlighted here in FE Week supplements which have shown a strong correlation between Adult Apprenticeships starts rising and Train to Gain starts falling as the latter scheme was wound down. The Government axed this last year, taking over half a billion pounds from the adult skills budget.

The report shows once again that BIS Ministers must do more to engage businesses, especially small and medium sized ones, and adults alike if they are truly to boost apprenticeship take up across England. At a time where youth unemployment stands at well over 1million and its highest level for a generation, the Government simply has to boost the numbers of the crucial 16-24 group where growth has been flatlining in recent months.

They had already been warned of this last year when now departed head of the NAS Simon Waugh stated there was ‘a chronic lack of Apprenticeship places for interested school and college leavers.’ We have proposed several initiatives as part of our alternative strategy for growth and jobs that would give hope to these young people – sadly the Prime Minister and Chancellor don’t seem to be listening.

Also looming on the horizon for Adult Apprenticeships is the introduction of FE loans from 2013/14. This will affect all apprentices aged 24 and over working towards Level 3 qualifications or higher. There are very real concerns that this will severely dent demand for Apprenticeships in this age group, as well as nudging both business and individuals away from contributions vital for growth in our local economies.

It also seems squarely at odds with the Government’s current desire to promote stronger employer ownership of skills, as UKCES themselves have argued in their submission to the initial consultation on FE loans. I fear that a poorly evidenced and hastily introduced ‘Big Bang’ approach could cause havoc for providers and lead to lost life-chances for tens of thousands of adult learners.

I will continue to push John Hayes and the Department on these issues in the months ahead. The report also made it clear it is imperative the SFA and NAS work together closely to oversee the operation and standard of the Apprenticeship programme. With new chief executives imminent at both organisations, I will continue to monitor this situation carefully to ensure that the necessary oversight and scrutiny of such a key policy area can continue.

Apprenticeships will and should rightly play a key role as we look to continue to work on boosting Britian’s skills base here in line with the Leitch report agenda. The NAO report and indeed the work of FE Week and others has shown that the Government must work harder to ensure future expansion of the scheme does not come at the expense of quality to ensure the Apprenticeship brand is protected.

Gordon Marsden, shadow minister for further education, skills and regional growth

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