The government knew apprenticeship starts would drop dramatically after the levy was introduced in May, the education secretary has claimed.

Justine Greening was quizzed on the 61 per cent fall in starts since May compared to the same period of time last year, which was revealed in official government statistics earlier this month, during a hearing of the House of Commons education select committee this morning.

“This is what we were expecting in the fact that we knew that when employers finally took over responsibility for actually spending the money themselves, they may well take some time to look at how they wanted to invest that money in apprenticeships,” she said.

But she conceded that the Department for Education was “tracking that very closely” – and that “we broadly remain on track in relation to 3 million apprenticeships”.

Ms Greening was responding to a question from Trudy Harrison, Conservative MP for Copeland and newly-appointed ambassador for apprenticeships.

She asked: “We’ve had a 61 per cent decrease in apprenticeships take-up since the levy was introduced. Why is that?”

Other questions put to the education secretary included a grilling from James Frith, MP for Bury, over funding for post-16 education, which he said went against Ms Greening’s commitment to social mobility.

Current funding rates per student at post-16 level are significantly lower than for 11- to 16-year-olds – around 21 per cent lower, according to the Sixth Form Colleges Association

“You talk about social mobility, equality of opportunity – these principles are not applied to your funding rationale when in the middle, at a very important time in a young person’s life you turn your back essentially to the tune of £1,000 per pupil,” he argued.

But Ms Greening insisted “I don’t agree with that”.

“I agree there does need to be more investment going in – that’s what we announced [in the spring budget] – but alongside that the other key thing that is going to make a big difference is broader reform in relation to technical education, T-levels, the need for employers to step up to the plate and give us work placements,” she said.

Committee chair Robert Halfon quizzed his former boss about her plans to review the £60 million fund, announced last October, to support apprentices in disadvantaged areas.

At a fringe event at the Conservative party conference in early October Mr Halfon outlined how he would like to see the money spent – which included giving a proportion to “incredible grassroots community groups” to support young people to be ready to start an apprenticeship.

Ms Greening confirmed this morning that the review of the fund was “underway”.

“I’m happy to update you once it’s completed,” she said.

On the subject of the Conservative party’s general election promise to introduce “significantly discounted bus and train travel for apprentices”, Ms Greening said only that she was “looking at taking forward the manifesto commitment”.

Earlier in the session Ms Greening took the opportunity to reaffirm her commitment to social mobility, equality of opportunity and to reforming technical education.

“Britain has never had equality of opportunity – that needs to change,” she said.

“None of us should accept that someone’s future is determined by where they start in life – that must be changed.”

She insisted that “young people in our country have never had a good enough choice of options post-16” and “technical education has never been at the level our young people deserve”.

“Our young people deserve a much higher quality technical education,” she said.

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