Keegan ‘focussed’ on ‘wasteful’ apprenticeship drop outs

'I can’t understand why they [completion rates] are not 99%. Who would give up that opportunity?'

'I can’t understand why they [completion rates] are not 99%. Who would give up that opportunity?'

High apprenticeship drop out rates are ripping off taxpayers, according to the education secretary, who told the Conservative Party conference she is “hugely focused” on improving completions.

Speaking at a conference panel organised by the think tank Policy Exchange, Gillian Keegan also said she was “outraged” by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy when working in business before becoming an MP, admitting that she later realised it was designed to “irritate us into action” amid low private investment in training.

At the ‘How can degree apprenticeships fulfil their potential’ debate yesterday, Keegan was asked by Association of Colleges president Corrienne Peasgood how degree apprenticeship completion rates could be improved, particularly for apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Keegan claimed that the completion rates for degree apprenticeships were currently “about 88 per cent”, which would be much higher than the 55 per cent national average for 2021/22. 

Official apprenticeship achievement data does not single out degree apprenticeships, but the published statistics do show that the latest retention rate was 58 per cent for level 6 and 59 per cent for level 7 apprenticeships. It’s also not possible to determine retention and achievement data for universities specifically, but the ‘other public funded’ provider type, which includes universities, scored a retention rate of 64 per cent for all higher-level apprenticeships. 

Keegan said: “Completion rates are my big thing at the moment. Every lost apprenticeship is lost taxpayers’ money, and I’m not happy about taxpayers’ money going to waste.

“And it’s an opportunity cost for someone else that could have done it. So that’s where I’m really focussed at the moment.”

Keegan added that more apprentices are completing better quality apprenticeships because she “got rid of all the crap ones” by companies that were abusing the system.

“They were terrible at the beginning. Because I mean, you know, companies had 40 per cent of their employees suddenly being apprentices. They weren’t apprentices. They were just trying to take advantage of the incentives that were there in terms of pay. So there was misuse of the system.

“So the reason they [completions] shot up and then went back down again is because I got rid of all the crap ones, because the crap ones were not really apprenticeships, right. But completion rates are where I’m hugely focussed.”

The high number of apprentices not completing and not achieving has concerned ministers before. 

Last year, then skills minister Alex Burghart introduced a new 67 per cent target for apprenticeship achievements by 2024/25 in response to a 57.7 per cent achievement rate in 2020/21. In 2021/22, that figure dropped to 53.4 per cent. 

“I can’t understand why they [completion rates] are not 99 per cent. Who would give up that opportunity? I know one or two may drop out, but it should be really, really high because it’s a brilliant opportunity that loads of people want now,” Keegan said yesterday.

Levy ‘irritated’ ‘lazy’ businesses

Keegan’s defensiveness over protecting public money came after she revealed she was “outraged” by the levy when it was first introduced in 2017, before she was an MP.

“I remember when the levy was introduced, and I was in business, and I was outraged. Outraged from wherever I was working at the time. And the reason was because it was a tax. 

“And then I realised, actually, it was meant to irritate us into action, because businesses had got lazier than when, you know, I was younger and General Motors would reach into a comprehensive school and find a couple of kids there and help them get on in life.”

Joining Keegan on the panel was Manchester Metropolitan University vice chancellor Malcolm Press, Grant Thornton partner Justin Rix, Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram.

Degree apprenticeships panel at Conservative Party Conference 2023
L R Rix Press Keegan Rotheram Goodhart

Devolve apprenticeship levy underspends

Rotheram attacked a “significant underspend” in the levy and called on the government to work with devolved mayors, in real time, to “help the government deliver its targets and close those skills gaps”.

His pitch was to allow mayors to use any levy underspend to fund priorities identified in their local skills improvement plans. 

“We’ve gone out to the employer base and said, what sort of skills do you need? They told us what they are. We’ve put all that into a document. We’ve now gone to all of our private training providers, HE sector, and FE, and said, how many spaces could you have for each of these areas, so we know what the capacity is,” he said.

“And we know there’s an underspend in the apprenticeship levy. And we know there’s employer demand. Yet, for whatever reason, the government seems unable to join the dots. We can do all of that. So I’d ask the secretary of state, work with us … and we can start to deliver on the promises that you made about skills and apprenticeship.”

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  1. Tony Allen

    This just tells me that she does not have a grip on reality. One of the reaons why there are so many early leavers is because of the way that employers use their levy. The use of the levy (not the concept of it) needs urgent reform. Start by reducing what an employer can have to spend to 50%. Double funding bands for 16-18 year old starts, give ITPs a cash incentive to find starts, and then you will see real change.

  2. Guiseppe

    When I first read this article I was bristling, but now that I’ve read it again I think she might actually be telling the truth. Not about the numbers, they’re just plain wrong, but the honesty.

    “I can’t understand why they [completion rates] are not 99 per cent”. Those who work in the sector understand there many factors involved in non completion. So for a politician to outright say they literally ‘can’t’ understand something is refreshingly honest, even if a little worrying.

    It does make you wonder how effective she is in the role, but then we know the Treasury has welcomed a fair chunk of unspent levy income in recent years, so perhaps she is functioning as required.

  3. I’m sorry, but it’s not always a brilliant opportunity! There are countless examples of poor or no delivery of training, let alone quality training, poor treatment of apprentices by employers and learners having to wait months to take their EPA because of the ridiculously complicated system the Government now forces all employers to use. And PLEASE will the person in charge of education in this country STOP using profanities publicly. It shows a lack of professionalism at best, but at worst it is just a very poor example to set for young people who need to learn and understand what professionalism means in a work setting. Never has an article on FE Week infuriated me more than this one.

    • Samantha Tinker

      Here here! Although, I would argue that the NMW rate for apprentices is also a huge factor.
      Why are excess funds that have made their way back into the treasury, not being used to supplement/subsidise the NMW rate and allow learners to complete whilst earning a reasonable rate, rather than leave and take up other, better paid roles in supermarkets just to support their parents and themselves in this economic climate. Apprentices have been totally overlooked in the cost of living crisis and are sometimes contributing heavily to a households income.
      My experience of employers has included some who are totally dedicated to the training and quality of the knowledge and skills that their learners develop, but just cannot hold on to them when the opportunity to earn more elsewhere is a factor.

  4. Anon 2.0

    I’m still trying to unpick what ‘hugely focused’ means.

    I think I have a good handle on what each word means in isolation, it’s just eluding me when they are put together like that.

    In fact, I’d go as far as saying I find it specifically vague.

  5. Penny Mitson

    Walk in their shoes – not just the typical younger apprentices but the other learners who come our way. The young mum who works as a teaching assistant in a school, who rarely gets off the job time and needs both English and maths functional skills. The older learner who has done the job for years, been out of learning for years, but now needs a recognised qualification. The apprentice in a nursery school who cannot get anytime out of ratio to do their work and goes home to care for elderly parents. The learner who is an assistant head and needs a Level 6 careers qualification, who has PGCE, NPQH but no record of Level 2 in English and maths so has to take FUNCTIONAL SKILLS… just walk in their shoes! This is about the pressures everyday life. Oh and please don’t think that using inappropriate language in an educational context is acceptable! It’s not! How are we supposed to tell our learners this is wrong when this article blows that out the window!

  6. Not necessarily against devolving levy underspend, but we do need to address the need for more transparency about how much is being spent, on what areas, and where the underspend (and the increasing income from the levy not being allocated to the Apprenticeship Budget by HMT) is actually going.

  7. Introduce a new end-tested process, then introduce a load of new providers into the market with an incredibly light touch (initially) process that was often completed by consultants.
    Watch them disappear once Ofsted come a calling.

    Allow lots of employers to become providers with no prior knowledge and watch them disappear once Ofsted come a calling.

    Oh…and bring in the Levy and then target the public sector with 2.3% headcounts, then complain because they are using it on management because they are cash-strapped.

    And as a final whammy, lets take away the most popular level 2 Apprenticeships and make them all Level 3 so that very few under 18’s stand a chance in hell of getting them.

    I think I’ve just found your answer as to why there isn’t a 99% completion rate.

  8. Phil Hatton

    I really wish someone would look at the financial incentives that many smaller employers took advantage of when they did not need new employees and were not willing to do their part in offering a true apprenticeship. Also the impact of school teacher assessment of English and maths GCEs which I know have landed providers with significantly less well prepared apprentice candidates than their certificates said [vital in areas such as engineering].