Making apprenticeships work for young people will take more than fixing the funding formula

At their best, apprenticeships can offer young people the opportunity to earn and to learn; to blend on-the-job training with off-the-job learning in a way that can help them build a successful and sustainable career.

As well as being good for the learner, apprenticeships can be great for employers too; helping them develop skilled, motivated and loyal employees. For the country, an effective apprenticeship system can help address the skills gap, boost our stalled levels of productivity, and act as an engine of social mobility.

The government’s ambitious target of three million apprenticeships this parliament is to be welcomed, and it has already taken action by introducing the apprenticeship levy on large employers.

The partial reversal of spending cuts for apprenticeships, announced last week, is also welcome.

The cuts would have hit young learners and deprived areas of the country particularly hard. Credit for convincing the government to re-think its plans should go to FE Week for their Save our Apprenticeships campaign, and to David Lammy MP and Gordon Marsden MP too.

But while the debate about government funding for apprenticeships is important, it is of course just part of the picture.

However, this is only a partial u-turn. In a debate in Parliament this morning recent number-crunching from FE Week was highlighted, showing that nine out of ten of the most popular apprenticeship frameworks will still face funding cuts of between 14 and 51 per cent.

It seems the cuts have merely been downgraded from the realm of the eye-watering to the swingeing. 

But while the debate about government funding for apprenticeships is important, it is of course just part of the picture.

While the partial u-turn is welcome, and while it needs to go further, there remains significant and systemic challenges with our apprenticeship system, particularly for young learners. It is failing to meet the needs either of young people, of employers or of our economy.

There is an ongoing problem with employer demand for young apprentices.

The number of apprenticeship starts has increased substantially, doubling in the last five years. This will likely be further boosted with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, as employers seek to get value from their contributions.

However, the growth has been driven by older apprentices, many of whom were already working with the employer. The number of young apprentices remains disappointingly static; fewer 16-18 year olds started an apprenticeship last year compared to four years previously, when the economy was just emerging from recession.

Beyond quantity, there are very real concerns about progression and quality. Too often, apprenticeships seem not to offer young people the opportunity to progress and develop sustainable and successful careers.

Upcoming IPPR research as part of the New Skills at Work Programme shows that far too many 16-18 year olds studying level 2 apprenticeships do not progress to the higher levels of vocational education that can really help them get on into work.

We know that people who do not progress beyond level 2 are far more likely to face low pay and unemployment.

Compared to counties with more established and effective vocational systems like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, young apprentices in England tend to spend far less time on off-the-job learning; normally just one day a week. This training is often very job-specific, rather than embracing the wider vocation, and there is a lesser focus on general education such as English, maths and digital skills.

The current model of level 2 apprenticeships contrasts not just with these countries, but also with the recommendations of the excellent Sainsbury review of technical education.

Sainsbury recommended that young people take a two-year course featuring a common core of knowledge that results in a certificate linked to an occupational pathway.

We need to learn the lessons both of our continental neighbours, and of the Sainsbury review.

The apprenticeship levy could make a real difference to numbers, and the partial U-turn on funding cuts is to be welcomed. But there is more to be done.

If the government wants to build on its reforms, and to develop a high quality apprenticeship system that works both for our economy, for employers and for young people too, we need to do more than just fix the funding formula.

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