The road to a Rolls Royce apprenticeship system

Government has made great progress on apprenticeships but it must go further to keep up with workforce demands

Government has made great progress on apprenticeships but it must go further to keep up with workforce demands

23 Feb 2024, 5:00

The Government is rightly proud of its record on apprenticeships. 

Since 2010, over 5.5 million apprentices have been trained and the apprenticeship landscape has altered massively.

Thousands of young people still leave school each year to learn traditional trades earning as they learn as an apprentice. But thousands more now train in artificial intelligence, become data engineers or get a foot on the ladder with major banks.

Importantly, parents’ attitudes have shifted towards high-quality apprenticeships and away from traditional degrees. Organisations like The Careers & Enterprise Company see major increases in the number of teachers promoting the value of vocational education. 

The Secretary of State for Education, herself a former apprentice, is pushing for doctors and teachers to be trained this way. Equally, I have hired two apprentices since being elected in 2019. 

The old view that to be an apprentice means being a teenager at the start of your career is shifting too. Tens of thousands of older workers are now being supported to upskill and reskill through apprenticeships. 

While it’s right we recognise this impressive record, for the apprenticeship system to be a genuine Rolls Royce operation, we need to constantly improve. 

And one of the biggest areas for reform focuses on people in the middle of their careers.

One of the government’s big themes over the past year has been getting more people to stay or get back into work. Economic inactivity is costing the country billions and impacting the public through labour shortages, lower productivity and fewer people paying tax. 

Recent research from Multiverse shows this is set to worsen, with 450,000 people thinking about dropping out of the labour market because they can’t keep up with the skills needed in the modern workplace. 

Every weapon in the government’s arsenal needs to be focused on this, and that includes apprenticeships. 

Functional skills requirements lead to perverse policies

We’re already seeing more and more businesses recognise the value in retraining long-standing workers by enrolling them as mid-career apprentices. It means someone working in a call centre learning the ropes of data analysis as AI takes over their old job, or a long-standing learning support assistant having a pathway to becoming a teacher. 

But there is one part of the apprenticeship system which is proving to be a major barrier for older workers: functional skills requirements.

To be an apprentice, you must prove you have good qualifications in both English and maths. If you can’t, the taxpayer will pay hundreds of pounds to put you on courses and enter you into exams to prove it. 

This sounds well-intentioned, but in reality it is leading to some perverse policies being enacted. Tens of thousands of older workers, working with their employers to retrain into new jobs using apprenticeships, are being forced onto expensive courses when they clearly don’t need to be there. 

For thousands, it’s because they simply cannot find their old O Level or A Level certificates. I’ve seen evidence of millions of pounds wasted each year on people being put on these functional skills courses when they already have a degree. 

Retaking basic English and maths qualifications when you already have an undergraduate degree defies all common sense. As I advocate for in the New Conservatives’ Plan to Upskill Britain, removing these requirements will boost the number of apprentices. 

Government spent £379 million on functional skills courses in the past five years. This is an area ripe for reform, not just because of its cost but because it is causing more apprentices to drop out, or worse, never apply in the first place. 

For people who have been good employees for decades, being told to go back to the classroom and the exam hall just doesn’t make sense. 

Making degree certificates evidence of passing your functional skills would save millions of pounds each year and stop thousands from being turned off from a life-changing apprenticeship.

Gillian Keegan and the Prime Minister are proud champions of apprenticeships and want to see the system go from strength to strength. Sensible reforms like this are key to delivering that ambition.

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