We are living through one of the biggest policy reforms in a generation. With a commitment to delivering 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, the government has introduced an Apprenticeship Levy on the largest employers alongside other major changes to the development and funding of apprenticeship. It certainly has been ‘all change’.

We are now just over a year into the new system, and the number of apprenticeship starts is around one third lower than last year. Are these teething troubles or a sign of more fundamental problems? Do the numbers reflect an increase in quality, or just a decrease in quantity?

In truth it is probably still too early to tell. But it is right to look at how the levy and other reforms are working so far, and to think about where to go next. As a contribution to this debate, we at Learning and Work Institute have brought together a collection of short essays from leading thinkers and organisations to answer 3 important questions:

  1. How do we make sure that apprenticeships are of highest quality so that they bring real benefits to apprentices and employers?
  1. How do we make sure that everyone who can benefit from an apprenticeship has a fair chance to access one, regardless of background or location?
  1. How do we build on the levy and wider reforms to meet our future skills needs and boost social mobility?

We know that the best apprenticeships are world class but that more work is needed to ensure that quality is consistent. All apprenticeships must offer genuine opportunities to improve individuals’ skills, whilst also meeting the skills needs of employers. The quality of training is key, as is the quality of employment and the apprentices wider experience. Ultimately apprenticeships should lead to high quality jobs with good career prospects.

Learning and Work Institute’s own research has highlighted stark inequalities in access to apprenticeships. Apprenticeship applications from people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are half as likely to succeed as applications from white backgrounds. Young people on free school meals are half as likely to get a level 3 apprenticeships as their peers. Gender segregation is a significant challenge, and people with health problems and disabilities are also under-represented in apprenticeships. All of this is both unfair and a waste of talent; it is both a social imperative and economic necessity that we end this participation penalty.

So, what should our next steps be if we are to make sure that we have world class apprenticeships accessible to all? And what further changes are needed to make a success of apprenticeships for the long run? These are important questions that we have asked our contributing authors to address – and they have come up with a range of interesting and insightful proposals. Ideas for change include devolution so cities and local areas have greater control; an Apprentice Premium to better support under-represented groups; and requiring all apprenticeship standards to meet the world’s best.

All change: where next for apprenticeships? will be launched later today (4 Jun). If you’d like to find out more, and add your thoughts to the debate, then join in the conversation at #ApprenticeshipFutures. An apprenticeship revolution is underway. Let’s work together to make it a success.

Dr Fiona Aldridge, Assistant Director for Research & Development, Learning and Work Institute.

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