Woodcock warns against ‘churning out numbers’ at expense of quality in drive for 3m apprenticeships

Shadow Education Minister for Young People John Woodcock has warned the government against “churning out numbers at the expense of quality” as it targets 3m apprenticeship starts by 2020.

Mr Woodcock (pictured above) was part of a panel of FE and skills experts who spoke at a House of Commons event last night hosted by the Young Fabians Education Network (YFEN) about the prospects for England’s apprenticeship system over the five-year lifetime of the newly-elected Conservative government.

He said that he had “grave misgivings” about the 3m target spelled out in the Conservative Party’s General Election manifesto.

“We [the last Labour government] were battered over what we can now admit was an overly targeted approach to, for example, health service reform,” he said.


“It did in some cases skew the system towards churning out numbers at the expense of quality and that is [now] a huge concern for apprenticeships.

“If those apprenticeships do not genuinely embed people in the world of work and set them up for a future profession, then we are doing a disservice to those young people coming into them.”

Another panellist at the event, which had around 50 audience members and was entitled ‘Beyond 3m: A successful apprenticeships system for the UK’, was director of early careers at Barclays Bank, Mike Thompson (pictured right).

He agreed that “systemically, there is a challenge with quality of apprenticeships, with people who are using the title but are genuinely not apprenticeships”.

He said many of the young people that Barclays had recruited as apprentices had already “been through very short apprenticeships, dangled a carrot of opportunity, and let go at month 11 or at the end” elsewhere.

“It has taken us three years to deliver a programme [since it was launched in April 2012] that can take apprentices from level two right up degree level,” he added.

He also thought that apprenticeships should be made “more accessible for all people”.


“Most companies require you to have A to C in maths and English, which discounts nearly half the young people in this country who don’t have that,” he said, with Barclays Bank apprenticeships advertised with “maths and English GCSE grades C and above or equivalent desirable but not essential”.

“We don’t have an academic criteria for our apprenticeships. It is not a problem for the government. It’s a problem for businesses as their human resources departments set the qualification criteria.”

But fellow panellist Ashley McCaul (left), chief executive at London training provider Skills for Growth, replied: “I don’t necessarily agree with what has been said this evening about recruitment thresholds for young people. Few of our young people have this [English and maths] GCSE A to C and that is generally the case with other providers of our type.”

She added: “Not all young people want to progress through from level two to level five, some simply need support to secure a job and to get into the labour market and that is the role for many providers who do their jobs really well.”

Ms McCaul praised the German apprenticeship system which, she said “has an incredibly grown up way of managing quality improvement”.

“If there is an issue with quality, there is a very grown up conversation between the institution and the chamber of commerce about how they can improve, which is then acted on,” she added.

Tom Bewick (right), managing director at consultancy firm New Work Skills Ltd and chair of Brighton & Hove City Council’s children, young people and skills committee, backed the plan announced by George Osborne in last Wednesday’s budget for an apprenticeship levy for large employers.

However, the Labour councillor said: “The devil will be in the detail. If you look around the world, there are some very successful and very unsuccessful levy schemes.

“You can get employers paying the tax [the levy charge], without a change in culture, they don’t change the recruitment culture.

“France is a very good example, the system there doesn’t deliver the boost to apprenticeships that it is designed to do.”

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