Tony Allen, CEO, AAS Ltd

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t know what is going on at the moment. Almost every conversation I have these days is met with a wringing of hands and shaking of heads. In the fifteen years that I have been involved, I have never known the sector and employers for that matter, so unhappy.

So why is this? We should all be really excited by the Levy and wider apprenticeships reforms, and should be relishing the obvious new opportunities that they bring. However, instead, through its mismanagement of recent activities, government has delivered a huge hangover to the sector….even before the party has started! So how has this come about? Well it’s all about the process, stupid!

To begin with, we have an approved provider register (RoATP) where nearly 400 organisations have no allocation from government to deliver apprenticeships to 98.5% of businesses. If they are lucky, some of them might have found the odd levy payer or two to keep them going. However, why let this number of mainly small providers, who are unlikely to generate much levy funding, onto the register and then give them no funds? Answer? We must get the process right, never mind the lack of common sense in the outcome!

Then we have the SME allocations process, which is a complete and utter shambles. Firstly, and almost overnight, the decision was made to suspend any decisions for eight months. Then in attempting to maintain status quo, even the allocations to existing providers seem, in a lot of cases, woefully short of their needs. The result of this? A large proportion of SME’s being denied their provider of choice, and this from a government who says that employers are at the heart of apprenticeship reforms, and are in the driving seat! Again, process over outcome.

It is no surprise given their share of the apprenticeship market, that private providers are bearing the brunt of this. From working inside government, I know how much concern there is over not allowing funding decisions to destabilise colleges. The result of this ideology is inevitably to distort the market in favour of colleges. I hear of many private providers who are currently saying that they will run out of SME apprenticeship money before December, but I hear very few colleges complaining.

Other failings include ignoring concerns over the 20% off-job training element. ESFA claims to be raising the bar in enforcing the rules. It is fine to do that, but the 20% rule is a very blunt instrument that is easy to deliver for a level 4 management apprenticeship, but much more difficult for a level 2 in retail! I know of at least three large employers who have changed their whole apprenticeship strategy on the basis of fears over the 20%. We need more flexibility, not some pretence of raising quality. Once more, process over outcome.

There are then further delays in announcing the outcome of the AEB procurement process, the setting up of the Institute for Apprenticeships, (which still does not have its senior team in place), and very suspiciously, even delays in announcing Ofsted results (which have never been delayed by a General Election before!)

It all seems like a government department that is out of touch not only with employers, but of equal concern, its own sector. It is a department that in trying to avoid making perverse decisions, only succeeds in making them! It is a department where getting the process right is the sole factor in determining success.

At this time of huge apprenticeship reform, what we need is government leadership that is strong, coherent, informed and confident. What we have is process obsessed government leadership, delivering ill informed, and often incoherent outcomes. Get the process right, never mind the outcome, really does seem to be the sole mantra.

I can only hope that once the General Election is over, we will see more effective leadership of apprenticeship reforms and funding. Leadership that is in tune with employers and the sector, and most importantly leadership that is focussed on delivering the right outcomes. Isn’t doing the right thing more important that doing it right?!

Tony Allen, CEO, AAS Ltd


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