Learn from recent history to avert apprenticeship disaster

Government figures have revealed a dramatic 61-per-cent drop in apprenticeship starts between May and July, compared with the same period last year, following the levy launch. As the sector waits to see if this forces a major rethink, FE Week’s deputy editor Paul Offord looks back to another apprenticeship policy catastrophe that sparked a quick U-turn.

The massive drop-off of apprenticeship starts comes as no surprise.

It has long been made clear to us by many providers, employers and those lobbying on their behalf, that the reformed system, rolled out from May 1, would have a slow start and many unintended consequences.

The idea of introducing what amounts to a tax that should force more companies to invest in training was a sound one, but the decision to let employers choose to spend it all on senior management training, allied with the ongoing farce around non-levy allocations, has left us in a mess.

Then-business secretary Dr Vince Cable, who now leads the Liberal Democrats, faced a nightmare scenario that bears comparison back in December 2013.

The advanced learner loans system had been launched that April – only for students aged 24 and above – which was a first for further education.

Take-up was disappointing across the board, but particularly for apprenticeships, which saw just over 400 applications over seven months.

People clearly weren’t prepared to pay their own cash for apprenticeship training in the same way they would for a degree.

I had only recently started as a reporter with FE Week, and the palpable sense of fear from government that this was going to undermine its drive to drastically increase apprenticeship numbers, was clear to me even then, as a relative novice to further education.

On that occasion, Dr Cable, the self-proclaimed “saviour” of our sector, acted promptly and scrapped loans for apprenticeships.

We are now faced with a situation where some employers, rather than learners, appear reluctant to invest in training or will simply save on existing training budgets for managers.

FE Week first reported the unstoppable rise in the management frameworks over a year ago, and today reveal it’s has overtaken business administration to become the second most popular

Now, or rather since May, graduates can for the first time become funded apprentices, meaning big employers will look to invest as much as possible of the money they are being forced to invest in training, on upskilling older employees through, for example, management apprenticeship degrees.

This appears to be the shape of things to come in the post-levy world, as our editor Nick Linford warned in his editorial in this week’s paper, when what we actually need is for more young people to develop skills from a lower level to properly support the UK economy as Brexit approaches.

Something needs to change fast and removing levy and co-investment charges for all 16-18 year-old apprenticeships would be a good place to start for a government apparently determined to improve social mobility.

Governments are, perhaps understandably, always reluctant to admit to having made mistakes.

However, it seems to me that Dr Cable, his then-skills minister Matthew Hancock, and the old Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, set a good precedent for taking decisive and much-needed action.

Let’s hope the skills team now led by our current minister Anne Milton, who has after all repeatedly promised to listen to and act on sector concerns, will be prepared to learn from recent history.

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