The post-pandemic recovery in apprenticeship starts has stalled during the current academic year with the biggest fall (8.3 per cent) in the first two quarters occurring in the 19-to-24 age group. The fluctuation in start numbers is largely determined by employer demand and there is no doubt that the slowdown in the economy since last summer has had a negative impact on what had been an encouraging post-lockdown recovery for the apprenticeship programme.
So how can we go about reinvigorating the apprenticeship brand? Here’s a summary of the main points I put forward at the recent FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference 2023.
Responsiveness and relevance
First, more needs to be done to bring apprenticeships in line with the needs of business. In particular, the employer trailblazer structure under IfATE is not functioning as it should. Employers can make recommendations to make apprenticeships more attractive to other businesses, but too often IfATE won’t accept them, such as allowing flexibility in the off-the-job training rule.
Then, as I wrote in FE Week in March, the apprenticeship requirement for attaining functional skills in maths in its current form is putting off a lot of businesses and would-be apprentices from engaging in the programme.
Remit Training has since conducted an online poll in which household-name employers and many training providers participated. Of these, 88 per cent of participants agreed that the maths aim needs reform. The key objective should be to reduce and achieve contextualisation of the curriculum to be more relevant to the apprenticeship.
Funded for success
The same proportion of respondents agreed that the separate funding rate, unchanged since May 2017, requires a significant uplift.
Our calculation is that the rate needs to be £1,800 to adequately cover monthly taught sessions with each apprentice. Without it, lower functional skills attainment will remain a major factor in the disappointing apprenticeship completion rates overall, which undoubtedly damages the brand.
Apprenticeship funding in general has not increased over the past six years, and in some cases has gone down. Over the same period since March 2017, the rate of inflation (Retail Price Index, RPI) has increased by 36 per cent in absolute terms. It is hardly surprising therefore that we hear almost weekly stories of providers going bust or withdrawing from apprenticeships.
Some observers may not care about providers, but they should at least care about the futures of thousands of young apprentices who are left in the lurch. An announcement on remedial action since promises on funding were made in early November cannot be delayed any longer.
The DfE’s apprenticeships director, Peter Mucklow recently visited Remit Training’s automotive apprentice academies in Derby. There, he saw the high level of investment needed to provide good quality training as the UK responds to the surge in new electric vehicle registrations.
We emphasised that we had to generate commercial training income in order to pay for our apprenticeship provision and grow it, adding that inflation has turned our HGV technician apprenticeship programme into a loss-maker. It means that Remit has to find alternative ways to raise funds to establish more academies when the economy needs these vital skills to keep our supply chains moving.
Lastly, the mark of any successful brand is its attractiveness to potential consumers. But apprenticeships are still not competing with other sectors on a level playing field. To attract more young people to apprenticeships, we should review how best to work with schools on the Baker Clause requirements for providing information and guidance to pupils.
Instead of potentially lots of providers trying to come into schools carrying different messages, a collaborative approach is needed to agree a manageable programme of visits. The government should also commission some bite-sized videos featuring apprenticeship completers talking about opportunities opened, career progression and increased earnings.
The key point emanating from independent training providers is that boosting the apprenticeship brand is not just about government funding. There are other changes with the potential to make the programme much more attractive to employers and young people, which all need government vision and leadership.
And of course, funding has to be addressed urgently too.