Olly Newton, Director of Policy and Research at the Edge Foundation

If you’ve seen the television advertisements exhorting us to Fire It Up, you would imagine UK plc is thriving with young apprentices, leaping out of bed at 6am, crackling with confidence and ambition. The £2.5million DfE campaign is designed to position apprenticeships as ‘cool’; the positive choice of the independently minded and entrepreneurial youngster who doesn’t follow the herd to uni, but electrifies the workplace with the blue lightning sparking off their shoulders.

In reality, as Learning and Work Institute’s excellent report, Bridging the Gap: Next steps for the apprenticeship levy, points out, the number of apprenticeship starts has fallen by about 20% since the introduction of the levy.

The impact has been even more marked when we look at a breakdown by age. There has been a dramatic rise in starts over the age of 25, two thirds of them being ‘conversions’ from existing employees. As this report highlights, you will find a greater number of older apprentices at levy-paying companies as they try to claw some of ‘their’ money back.

At the same time, the number of young people aged under 19 taking apprenticeships has declined – the very group who can benefit most from the fantastic opportunities that are available through earning and learning. This leaves the government woefully short of its 2020 target of three million apprenticeships.

L&W Institute make some excellent recommendations to redress the balance, which Edge would support. Restricting apprenticeships to people below the age of 25 or where they are new to a sector or occupation would help to focus the programme where it will make the greatest difference. Yes, the fourth industrial revolution will make high quality retraining a necessity for existing workers, but not everything needs to be under the apprenticeship banner.

Moreover, as our economy relies more on start-ups and small companies, we also make it easier for SMEs to take on young apprentices. As Edge’s own Plan for Apprenticeships earlier this year outlines, the programme should be refocused to place SMEs at the front and centre.

In place of the doomed numerical target, that report also outlined how Edge would like to see a greater emphasis on quality first. A recent survey conducted by the Apprentice Voice reported that 45% of apprentices didn’t feel confident they were getting 20% off the job training. Apprenticeships in other European countries are of considerably longer duration than the 12-15 months typical in the UK and usually start with a broader base to ensure transferability and resilience.

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In a national system, there is also more room for local innovation. England’s Metro Mayors have collectively called for unspent levy funds to be distributed regionally. As part of industrial strategy this could be an excellent way to direct funds to meeting local skills needs and supporting smaller organisations.

Apprenticeships occupy a policy ground which encompasses education and industry and commerce. They can provide excellent learning and employment opportunities for young people, enable companies to recruit bright, raw talent into their organisations and help close skills gaps. If we are to match the success of programmes in European neighbours we need to see apprenticeships in their full context.

The government says – or at least pays the M&C Saatchi to say it for them – that apprenticeships are a great route to a successful career. Indeed they often are, but young people need access at a younger age to a broader curriculum including creative and technical subjects and real workplace experiences. Only then will they be prepared to fully appreciate the opportunities that apprenticeships, and new T-levels could offer.

Olly Newton, Director of Policy and Research at the Edge Foundation

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