Apprenticeship 'robbery' report: Is poor policy trashing a good idea?

Apprenticeships and the Apprenticeship Levy are good ideas in principle but the way they are operating indicates a need for a rethink

The Government's apprenticeship policy is flawed, according to Reform report
The Government's apprenticeship policy is flawed, according to Reform report

Oh dear. It appears that the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions might be coming true when it comes to apprenticeships in Britain, at least if research by right wing think tank Reform is to be believed.

Its report - “The Great Training Robbery” - demonstrates that some of the frequently expressed fears of critics of the way the Government has sought to boost apprenticeships are being realised.

Published a year after the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, it finds many employers have sought to game the system and that a colossal £600m could end up being wasted by 2019/2020, when, according to the Tory Government’s stated policy some 3m should have embarked on apprenticeships.

Moreover, the status of apprenticeships is in danger of being trashed.

The Levy isn’t a bad idea in principle. Charged at 0.5 per cent of payroll, the money goes into a “digital fund” that employers can use to recoup the cost of training apprentices. That ought to help address the skills gap they're always banging on about.

Unfortunately, the report highlights a litany of problems with how it is working in practice.

Low-skill roles with very short training courses attached are said to have been reclassified as “apprenticeships” to enable employers to recoup funds.

They include “serving customers in a delicatessen or coffee shop, working on a hotel reception desk, performing basic office administration and serving food and drink in a restaurant".

All useful functions, but as the report states: “Such training courses do not meet the historical or international definition of an apprenticeship because they typically offer minimal training, represent low-wage jobs and do not constitute skilled occupations.”

It also criticises the widespread rebranding of existing courses to qualify for the digital fund. An example: “Cranfield University’s prestigious School of Management has even re-designated its existing Executive MBA as an apprenticeship to attract up to a 90 per cent government subsidy towards the programme costs.”

The subtext to the Government's messaging on apprenticeships is, look, if you’re vocationally inclined you don’t need to go to university. You can go and earn by working for Rolls Royce straight out of school and train while you’re doing so, leading to the sort of career, and status, that many graduates would salivate over.

A rather different message is being sent if an apprenticeship means being trained to put chips in a fryer, or being part of a cynical exercise to lower institutions’ levy bills and help the government meet an overly ambitious target.

As for that target, “The Great Training Robbery” points to a 40 per cent decline in the number of people taking out apprenticeships in the first six months after the levy’s introduction with more over 25s training towards “apprenticeship standards’” than under 25s, hardly a surprise if they’re engaged in re-badged training courses that they would have been taking anyway.

It’s hard to find fault with many of the report’s recommendations. That 3m target was always going to encourage ministers to turn a blind eye to cheating in order to meet it. It should be dropped right away.

A new, more rigorous definition for what is an apprenticeship is should be adopted, and overseen by exam regulator Ofqual. The funding system should be tweaked.

The current system is failing employers, at least the good ones, as much as it is the young people who are its intended beneficiaries.

Why would you want to be associated with such a thing?

Boosting apprenticeships is a thoroughly good idea but a rethink of the current means of achieving that aim may be needed.

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