Steve Besley offers a Policy Watch perspective on Labour’s proposals on apprenticeships.

We’ve had world class qualifications for the academic system, now we have a call for “a universal gold standard for apprenticeships”.

This would be based on a level three threshold with minimum durations, dedicated time for off the job training and greater employer control over funding and standards.

Details can be found in Labour’s independent skills taskforce’s first report on apprenticeships, published at the start of this year’s party conference.

The Taskforce’s two other reports, due in the autumn, will cover school-work transition and vocational learning in FE, but for the moment the emphasis is on apprenticeships.

Renaming level two training would require considerable work to ensure such a credible route can be put together”

This report supports the growing trend towards direct funding for employers, calling for a large chunk of the current £1.5billion apprenticeship budget to be handed over, but with two conditions.

These are firstly that the funding should be used to develop sector-led workforce development strategies, with apprenticeship targets thrown in for good measure, and secondly, that employers should work with local bodies.

The local join aspect needs a bit more working up and there’s no mention of how 16 to 18 year old provision would fit in, but the message is clear and reinforced in the report’s title – “A something-for-something deal with employers”.

In the long-term, the report’s sympathies lie with the use of tax incentives.

National Insurance relief for small employers, many would argue, would be a better bet than the current youth contract approach.

The report is also keen on employers and employees, rather than ministers, leading on training policy.

This is a tricky area, as it needs some structures for this to happen and the skills system is not short of structural change.

The report’s answer is to give the UK Commission for Employment and Skills a leading role in making the current system work better, rather than attempt to create anything particularly new.

As the architects of the current Employer Ownership Pilots, there is an obvious logic here although the commission may need support.

The model proposed is a hub and spoke one where the UK Commission for Employment and Skills builds the capacity of sector bodies, which in turn work to improve training at a local level.

The third core proposal is the development of a universal gold standard to help re-define just what an apprenticeship is.

There’s been lots of concern recently about the apprenticeship brand and whether it has been tarnished by being allowed to drift into other forms of training.

The report’s answer is to pull in the esteemed Rhineland model of a high-quality, employer-defined, level three qualification and use that as the model to aim for.

Given that so many apprenticeships here at the moment are at level two, this raises the question “what should happen to such training?”

The report states level two training should be renamed as a traineeship or similar and re-designed to ensure all young people who want to progress to higher level training are able to do so.

This may happen in due course, but it would require considerable work to ensure such a credible route can be put together.  The government is already circling this area, partly through its work on 16 to 19 accountability and partly through its review of adult vocational qualifications. However, it remains the next big challenge for policy makers.

Steve Besley, head of policy at Pearson and author of Policy Watch


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