National Apprenticeships Week got off to a very positive start with the Prime Minister committed to expanding apprenticeship opportunities for young people as an alternative to going to university.
AELP member training providers could meet more and already identified demand from employers and young people now if the funding system operated more efficiently by directing money to the providers who can evidence current demand. Many AELP members are still waiting to hear if their recent apprenticeship growth requests will be granted, while receiving mixed messages from their funding relationship managers about apparently little spare money left in the system and yet knowing that other institutions are sitting on considerable sums of unspent cash.
The result is that many apprentices are being turned away from starting their courses in the midst of a double-dip recession.
Matthew Hancock, the skills minister, has said that this week’s government response to the Richard Review will allow further exploration of Mr Richard’s tax credits proposal to fund employers’ apprenticeships provision directly. If it is true that negotiations with the Treasury on this proposal have been intense, I can imagine why. The big issue is that the employer is supposed to find the money up front to pay for training apprentices and then claim it back with the tax return at the end of the year. For many SMEs, this will present an insurmountable cashflow obstacle which will put them off from taking on young people as apprentices.
In our view, there seems to be an endless and rather fruitless search for new funding solutions for the staggeringly successful apprenticeship programme when all that is needed is to make the present demand-led system even more employer responsive by directing more of the current adult skills budget to the providers and colleges which can clearly show employer demand. Apprenticeship delivery is not broken; it is a national success story. Unnecessary structural change might well break it!
The Richard response may also say more about the new traineeship proposals which are fundamental to realising the Prime Minister’s ambitions for more young apprentices. With employers raising the bar for apprenticeship entry requirements, not all school-leavers are equipped with the necessary qualifications to start an apprenticeship. AELP therefore welcomes the proposal to develop traineeships, with their specific focus on helping those young people who are motivated and focused on employment and equip them to secure and succeed in jobs, including apprenticeships.
A blueprint for Traineeships
We are pleased that the government is adopting a flexible black box approach for providers to adopt, where the acceptable outcomes are defined rather than the process, but it is still appropriate to set out what elements could or should be included in traineeships, as follows:
- Poor English and maths are identified as a problem by most employers and trainees who have not achieved GCSE grade C or equivalent should continue to develop these vital areas during their programme, preferably through the functional skills route rather than the academic options (GCSEs).
- A focused period of work preparation training to develop personal and employability skills, and including mentoring and access to information, advice and guidance.
- High quality work experience, which as the government’s consultation document states, is often just as important to businesses as formal qualifications. If traineeships are to succeed work experience opportunities must not be limited only to employers with real job opportunities. Ideally the period of work experience should lead to a job interview, but a guaranteed interview must not become an absolute performance measure.
- Whilst it should not be mandatory, some optional vocational training could be offered. These should be undertaken in the workplace and not via ‘simulations’.
Using this outline, the provider should be able to develop a programme to meet the needs of each young person. The duration of the programme must be totally flexible – 4 weeks, 13 weeks, 6 months, etc. – determined solely by what is required by the trainee. While we agree that the primary objective of a traineeship should be to equip the young person to secure an apprenticeship or other good and sustainable job it must not become by default the route that all must follow before they are able to start on an apprenticeship.
Another ingredient which is essential to the success of traineeships is that all SFA and EFA providers, and indeed employers, capable of delivering the traineeships should be enabled to do so if they wish. There are already many providers delivering programmes similar to traineeships; however there are many others equally well equipped to deliver the programme that will be precluded from doing so for 16-18 year olds simply because they do not have a contract with the EFA.
It is clear that the limited number of independent providers currently with EFA contracts is insufficient to support the size of programme needed to for the proposed cohort of young people that will be eligible for traineeships. Existing apprenticeship providers should therefore be allowed to deliver traineeships to under 19s and likewise EFA providers for 19+ learners. This will ensure a seamless service and significantly increase the number of NEET young people able to take advantage of traineeships and apprenticeships.
Graham Hoyle OBE is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers