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Clear direction of travel still needed for Apprenticeships

Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers
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The recent AELP Autumn Conference saw 250 providers try to make sense of an apprenticeship programme that faces a number of changes. While the current system works and has delivered growth in starts and improvements in quality, the government continues to propose fundamental changes. It was clear that providers and more importantly employers are finding it harder and harder to plot and plan their way through the changes to ensure we get at least 3 million high quality apprenticeships in this Parliament.

At last year’s conference, it was providers who were cautious about Trailblazer proposals and new funding systems. This year employers expressed the same concerns. Since then of course, the government has proposed an Apprenticeship Levy which we all know will be a game changer.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said that their members were concerned about a funding system that affected cash flow and they were concerned about managing the administration. It was clear that the role of providers in ‘hiding the wiring’ was now being recognised. CBI too had similar concerns to AELP about the implementation of the levy. Unless the implementation is managed effectively with stakeholders, there could be some unintentional consequences.

At the conference, the BIS, SFA and EFA speakers recognised the role of providers. In fact the language has changed from employer owned apprenticeships and employer routed funding to employer driven and employer controlled. These were words we were using 12 months ago. Let us hope that the Chancellor and ministers are in listening mode on apprenticeships because there were some strong messages from employers at the conference.

CBI made it very clear that they would not have gone down the levy route and a common thread was that the levy must not put the pursuit of quantity before quality. Quality apprenticeships require a commitment from employers that goes beyond paying cash for training. We do not want to make decisions around apprenticeships a purely financial transaction. The CBI warned about an implementation date of 2017 which may not allow sufficient planning and had already questioned the right level of payment.

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It was also clear that we need a rethink on the system for funding SMEs. The FSB said that many of their members are concerned about the cashflow implications of the current proposals and the need to simplify the funding. The engineering firm, Liebherr Group, questioned whether industry colleagues would go to their finance directors and ask for £90k to train 10 apprentice engineers. They warned that levy-paying employers may target apprenticeships at the less costly lower levels than level 3 or above.

The FSB predicted a lag in SMEs offering apprenticeships after the reforms come in because they will want to see if the digital voucher system actually works before taking the plunge. Increases in the minimum wage could also act as a barrier. SMEs take a long time to understand and feel comfortable with change. In the meantime under the current system, small businesses in some areas are struggling to find enough suitable young apprentices to fill vacancies.

The conference heard a number of updates about the Trailblazer process. Although lots of employers had given up time to develop standards, the process was dominated by a few major employers. It was very difficult for SMEs to stay involved. It was also clear that there is a need for some overarching management of the standards process which had to include employers, providers and awarding bodies. The most difficult part of the Trailblazer process was still to come with the development of assessment plans i.e. how will apprentices be tested. City and Guilds, the conference sponsor, gave a presentation on how quality and training need to remain at the core of any apprenticeship programme.

The conference demonstrated that there is a long way to go to establish a clear direction of travel. We need to establish an effective levy system, we need to review the funding system for SMEs and we need to manage the development of standards in a more structured way. There is a recognition that providers can and will be part of that solution and we saw signs during the conference that this is recognised by employers and government.

Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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