From education to employment

Are we nearly there yet? Apprenticeship reforms at the half way stage

Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Partnership Director, Kaplan Financial

One year since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy and we are roughly half-way through the implementation phase of the current apprenticeship reforms.

So how’s it all going?

Political impact

The political stakes for Apprenticeships have never been higher.

Ever since the political ‘spin doctors’ discovered that Apprenticeships come second only to the NHS in popular public regard they have attracted attention of politicians. Who have then competed to establish themselves and their parties as being the true custodians and champions of Apprenticeships ever since.

Thus political parties now must all commit to either ‘doing more’ or if you cannot do more to ‘doing better’. The ‘parity of esteem’ speech that was made this year by Theresa May is now a very well established part of any politician’s set-list of speeches and is regularly rolled out by all parties.  

With the uncertainties of Brexit looming there is more pressure than ever for Apprenticeships to assume the role of the White Knight of the workforce.

So politically there is no going back and failure is not an option.

Public opinion

Harder to judge but I suspect awareness is up even if understanding isn’t – how could understanding increase whilst the programme continues to be in such a state of such flux?.

Perhaps the new duty on schools to promote apprenticeships alongside the renewed focus on careers advice will help provide parents and young people to at least consider the option of apprenticeship. My colleague recently published a great article on this which highlights the key role of parents and the unseen role of social pressure.

No clear pathway

With a new range of ‘degree level’ apprenticeships parity of choice is there in theory – but in practise we are not really any closer to young people having a direct and timely choice at 16 or even 18 between say A-levels, ‘College’, Apprenticeship or Full-time University.

Each year young people and their parents have to decide what to do after School. If what they want is an apprenticeship then they are asked to take a ‘leap in faith’ that an apprenticeship will be available for them the following summer. This feels like a risky bet and so many decide to apply for a College or Uni place even if what they want is an Apprenticeship.

Without the creation of an annual apprenticeship cycle, overseen and managed by a Government body, there will never be parity of choice for young people.

Therefore we can say now that this set of reforms on their own will not create a substantially larger 16-19 apprenticeship programme or a mainstream school to work route. (No matter how much we wish for this)

What we are creating however are a range of high-value training opportunities, whose entry points are staggered, fragmented and often hidden. And so will be accessed mainly by older, better connected workers.

The transition from Frameworks to Standards

Back in 2014 and with youthful optimism, the now defunct Government Joint Apprenticeship Unit declared that by 2018 all apprentices will be on new standards. A more sober DFE has now reset this deadline as 2020. As it took us 6 years to move from ‘Blueprint’ apprenticeships to ‘SASE Apprenticeships’ that seems like a more realistic timeline.

Indeed Amanda Spielman (Oftsed) recently spoke about the “the slow but inexorable move from apprenticeship frameworks to apprenticeship standards” and we are now just about half way there – with about half of apprenticeship starts now being on the new standards – and about half of the 500 planned new standards being approved and available.

Developing new standards has been a slow process as employer enthusiasm meets the reality of evolving government guidelines and I am not sure that many Trailblazer groups will be there to review and renew standards at the end of their 3 year cycle. So there will still be a need for the IFA or other to ensure that training standards remain relevant and comprehensive.

The biggest practical change from Frameworks to Standards is obviously the end of the role of the Provider as Assessor and the introduction of End Point Assessment, and all of the logistical challenges that presents.

However the biggest impact of this change is in the academic level of apprenticeships. Standards are mainly at level 4 and 5 whilst Frameworks were mainly level 2 and 3.

This moves the ‘mean’ of Apprenticeships from being a job entry level / A level equivalent programme to being a post A level programme for those wishing to specialise and become expert.

In this area the reforms could be seen as being successful as they have re-established Apprenticeships as being about technical excellence. Of course the flip side to this is that it leaves a yawning gap where entry-level workbased learning used to sit.

Quantity vs Quality

With the 3m target feeling more and more like a milestone than a rallying cry it is no wonder that the IFA have now started to measure hours as well as starts. And with higher-level, more expensive apprenticeships replacing shorter, cheaper ‘Frameworks’ the average amount of hours per person has likely increased – so it would seem a good thing to measure!

Success rates have also held up well, although we haven’t yet seen the impact of the EPA on these. And it does seem harsh if providers are held responsible for EPA results when so many EPAOs are not yet ready and working.

  • In 2009 the biggest quality issue in apprenticeships was employment (or lack of it). There was too much ‘off the job’ training..and the end of programme-led courses and the statutory link to employment (ASCL 2009) was seen as key to improving quality and differentiating apprenticeships from other courses
  • In 2013 the biggest quality issue in apprenticeship was duration. And the resulting introduction of the 12 month minimum duration rule (alongside 100 hours off the job min) was heralded as being key to ending ‘low’ quality schemes.
  • Since 2017 the biggest issue in apprenticeship quality has been the amount of off the job training. With the 20% requirement being introduced to ‘guarantee’ quality, VFM and additionality.

The principle of ‘20% off the job training’ or a ‘day a week at college’ are historically key elements of apprenticeships – but come from a time when apprentices were mainly young people moving from education to work. This tradition is why Apprentices can be paid less than other workers and is intrinsic to the only large scale long lived apprenticeship programme (the German dual-system).

However applying this model to the modern all age, all-level English programme denies employers the flexibility and innovation that characterises the best elements of the UK economy.

Centrally setting the exact number of hours required for the training of all apprentices, from raw 16 years olds to well-paid, experienced staff, jars with employers and is not a guarantee of quality.

Employer ownership

Awareness is certainly up with employers – the CBI, CIPD etc have never had so much to say about apprenticeships.

However the Levy is paid by employers and not owned by them.

And the levies £2bn PA has not all come from the magic money tree but from wage deflation, profit cuts and above all from a raid on corporate L&D budgets.

Therefore it is normal that employers would seek flexibility regarding how they spend their levy as they seek to continue the learning programmes that it has displaced.

As we realise the enormity of ‘creating’ £2bn PA of apprenticeships at employers who just happen to have wage bills of £3m PA we surely need to find more common ground or the levy risks becoming a missed opportunity (and as the OU smartly pointed out a tale of under-utilisation).

These seem to me to be the areas where the reforms need further work:

  • Moving the money around – £1bn sits untouched in one apprenticeship account whilst in a another providers don’t have the funding to support live SME demand for training,,,
  • 20% off the job – finding ‘common ground’. We must not become the bean counters of training hours but adopt a pragmatic approach to this core apprenticeship element
  • Allowing large employers to lead, but ensuring that the needs of SMEs and of entry level job roles are protected even if they have no large employer lobby
  • Move on from the idea of negotiated prices. Large employers have already paid before they speak to a provider and SMEs pay only a small element of costs so neither have a compelling reason to focus on price.
  • Ensure there is a reason for employers to pay for EPAs and for learners to sit them – there is a danger that they become an expensive add on that are not taken up by many
  • Sub-contracting, allow employers not the ESFA to choose how many providers they use and contract with – they don’t need ESFA oversight here.


Another area where ‘reform’ seems to have given up, but where we must do something to support employers is devolution:

  • The Levy is a UK initiative and is paid against UK wide wage bills
  • The National Insurance rules and Min Wage rates for apprentices are UK wide
  • The Military (for good reason) are allowed to use English funding across the whole UK..
  • Employers have UK workforces they cannot and should not differentiate between

Yet each nation insists on having its own set of apprenticeship funding rules.

It is simply not good enough for departments and parliaments to say there is nothing that can be done here – I think that the onus has to be on the UK government to allow employers to spend their UK levy on their UK employees (it is not as if there is a shortage of unspent levy funding).

Return on Investment

The two core challenges articulated so clearly by the AELP of Productivity and Social Mobility are surely the key measures but it will be a number of years before we can measure the impact here.

This mid-policy implementation phase is often the point at which the next set of reforms starts to germinate; the most we can hope for is that it will be a case of more evolution than revolution as we could still be onto something here.


Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Partnership Director, Kaplan Financial

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