Plans for PHD-level apprenticeships might not be going ahead because the Institute (previously IfA) has raised concerns the programmes might not be in the “spirit” of the programme.

In April the Institute’s approval funding committee deferred approving the first PhD-level apprenticeship in December – which would have been a Level 8 programme –  in order to seek further guidance from the board and the Department for Education on whether level 8 apprenticeships were compatible with the aims of the apprenticeship reform programme.

While some might see this as putting a halt on progression, it could be argued that it provides an opportunity to put the focus back on improving neglected programmes at the other end of the apprenticeship scale: Level 2 and 3 apprenticeships.

In the same month the brakes were put on PhD-level plans, Halfords announced that it planned to scrap its Level 2 apprenticeships – most of which are retailer apprenticeships – after the reduction in the funding band for the Level 2 retailer standard was cut by 20 per cent from £5,000 to £4,000 in December.

Halfords are not alone. The decline of Level 2 apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the levy in May 2017 is notable. Compared to the first six months of 2016-17, the first six months of 2018-19 saw starts at Level 2 drop by more than 42 per cent (which equates to 63,000).

In the same period, Higher Apprenticeship starts more than doubled, from 18,000 to 43,000, an increase of 138 per cent.

At the end of last year, the Department for Education acknowledged this issue by launching an investigation into Level 2 and 3 programmes. A number of experts also spoke about the challenges facing apprenticeship employers, and highlighted that the Apprenticeship Levy could be to blame for the drop in lower level programme starts.

Mark Dawe, CEO of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers said:

"We want apprenticeships to grow at all levels, but major mistakes in the implementation of the levy have resulted in a serious undermining of the government’s social mobility agenda.  The crash in number of opportunities for levels 2 and for young people are simply disastrous when the onus is now on us to train up our own home grown talent. Level 2 starts are now the biggest issue we face.

"The official admission that the levy pot is running dry means that a full and open debate is needed on how the levy reforms are taken forward so that businesses of all sizes, and not just the levy payers, can start restoring the lower level apprenticeships that have been lost around the country."

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Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders highlighted how the failure to address issues facing lower level programmes was hitting certain industries, at a time when Brexit is also causing challenges.

“These alarming apprenticeship figures come hot on the heels of the recently published Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report, which outlined some worrying recommendations for the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system,” he said. “The Government’s initial reaction was to accept the MAC report’s recommendations. This is deeply concerning as the report suggests that the supply of ‘low-skilled’ migrant workers should be severely limited. The construction industry relies heavily on low skilled workers, such as labourers, who are essential to any construction site. What’s more, Level 2 tradespeople, such as bricklayers and carpenters, will be deemed low skilled and therefore severely limited in number.

“This is unwise given the construction skills shortage and insulting given the amount of knowledge and skills these individuals possess. New figures show that there were 2.25 million EU nationals working in the UK in from July to September 2018, 132,000 fewer than one year earlier – that’s the steepest fall on record. It is therefore even more vital that the Government listens to the industry and reforms the Apprenticeship Levy before it is too late. We need to be training more UK-born apprentices to reduce future reliance on migrant workers from Europe or else the construction sector will grind to a halt.”

The health and social care market is another example of an industry shedding Level 2 and 3 apprenticeships, despite the fact that the UK has a rising demand for health and social care workers. There has been a decline from 90,290 starts in 2016-17, to 44,380 in 2017-18, and just 15,440 starts during the first half of 2018-19.

However, there is hope for Intermediate and Advanced Apprenticeships. Namely, people still want to do them. 44% of apprenticeships started in 2017/18 were at Advanced Level – Level 3 – for example.

Despite the headline grabbing programmes at higher levels, the basic reason someone chooses to do an apprenticeship applies just as much to those at Levels 2 and 3. AllAboutSchoolLeavers’ research shows that: “The main reason students want to undertake an apprenticeship is to gain experience early.”

Maybe by halting plans for ever higher levels of apprenticeship (the PhD level) authorities can refocus on the much-neglected lower levels – and figure out how to repair them.

Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

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