Red tape cutting too good to be true?

The Bureaucracy Busters, rated PG, coming soon to employers and training providers near you? This is the latest in the Coalition’s on-going saga of deregulation and slashing red tape (see front page).

For too long vexatious bureaucracy has held back innovation; Whitehall pen-pushers have strangled professional freedoms and a culture of targets has drowned out creativity.

This week our heroes are BIS Secretary Vince Cable and Skills Minister John Hayes and a package of new measures to make apprenticeships less complicated for employers. Is this the answer to our poor record of employer engagement in apprenticeships, or a massive abdication of responsibility?

How sure can we be that public money is being used at optimum efficiency and, more importantly, how can we be sure that learners themselves are getting maximum benefit.”

To the delight of the CBI, the Government claims that their new measures will create jobs and stimulate growth. But I have questions. Anybody who has read the new consultation on FE reform will see that the balance between deregulation and ensuring value for money is a significant challenge.

In our sector and with apprenticeships in particular, are we really prepared for this kind of scaling back of data collection? How sure can we be that public money is being used at optimum efficiency and, more importantly, how can we be sure that learners themselves are getting maximum benefit.

Take “outcome incentive” payments for example, which BIS say will eliminate data and audit requirements. On whose terms defines a successful outcome for apprentices? A pay-rise or promotion; or simply gaining or retaining your job?

Data on apprenticeships is already shaky. What does exist tells us that we have a poor record of employer take-up when compared internationally, and an even poorer record in terms of successful completion. More recently, we’ve seen how so called ‘condensed’ apprenticeships have been funded, sparking a new commitment from the National Apprenticeship Service that they will keep a closer eye on quality.

I distinctly remember being in a meeting of the FE All Party Parliamentary Group when they were taking evidence from the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses where I heard first-hand how many employers are simply put off by the paperwork. I buy this to an extent but can’t help but question the extent to which this is true. When I see for example that freelance journalist Jan Murray is recruiting an apprentice, I wonder how businesses with full on HR teams can get away with saying that the paperwork is too much.

Ultimately though this is the start of a much bigger inevitable row. On the one hand, we’re seeing moves from the Government that quality is – rightly – becoming a much bigger issue for them, yet on the other they are significantly reducing the amount of data that will be made available for public scrutiny.

Of course, employers recruiting and training apprentices should be welcomed with open arms and fully supported. A few years down the line and I would probably be less sceptical of the happily ever after scenario Mr Cable and Mr Hayes are hoping for.

Shane Chowen was VP for FE at the NUS and is currently an FE consultant tweeting as @shanechowen


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