Richard Marsh

We are due a budget next week and it will outline the new Governments plans for further investment in FE & skills (in England at least).

As well as replacing ESF budgets it will hopefully include plans for a return to investment in ‘skills’ including Apprenticeships (after 10 years of budget reductions).

Additional funding will obviously be welcome and will reduce the pressure to make cuts, for cuts sake.

However will it address the fundamental question of what we want the Apprenticeship programme to do?

Core Apprenticeship Requirements

I think that it is fair to assume that this Government (indeed any Government) wants:

  1. A vibrant, growing Apprenticeship programme supporting our key economic sectors
  2. Low-levels of risk and a commonly held perception of high-quality
  3. Take-up by large numbers of young people, as a positive education choice
  4. Funding for all opportunities - but without an ever increasing cost to the tax payer.

Is all of this possible? I believe so.

Although at the moment there are valid question marks against all four of these core indicators.

At a level below these macro issues, a raft of Consultations released over the past few weeks reveal where the various apprenticeship ‘bodies’ think they have issues that need to be fixed:

  • EPA Assurance – IfATE want to simplify the external assurance regime for EPAs – who could disagree?
  • Apprenticeship costing methodology – a brave attempt to finally produce a transparent costing methodology or a way of reducing rates to the point of unviability. We shall see.
  • Sub-contracting – one of the ESFA’s constant concerns. ESFA clearly believe that further regulation is needed and must have evidence of malpractice that needs to be stopped. Whilst we must protect the public purse, we are in danger of literally ‘ruling out’ education partnerships and the inclusion of employer expertise in Apprentice’s training.
  • Finally a very public review commissioned by the Secretary of State about the place of ‘MBAs’ in Apprenticeships. This very sudden and public ‘singling out’ of programmes that have met all of the rules, is exactly the kind of thing that erodes confidence in the system and prevents investment.

These consultations contain interesting questions and could go some way towards tidying the current landscape; but none of them directly address the core Apprenticeships questions as listed above.

However they do further expose the tension between the continued move towards an Apprenticeship ‘free-market’ vs the role of regulators in protecting individuals as apprentices and the state as sponsor.

Approaching the limits of a free market for Apprenticeships

In a few months (1 Aug 2020) there will be no more Apprenticeship Frameworks, and (by 1 Nov 2020) no more Apprenticeship funding allocations – and a sort of free market of Standards will emerge. With potential apprentices and employers, in theory, free to choose from 500 standards at 2,000 providers.

However with no guarantee of universal coverage or availability the amount of choice actually varies considerably depending upon your perspective.

A large employer may be able to select from many potential suppliers, whereas a small employer or would-be-individual apprentice may well struggle to find what they want.

The amount of Apprenticeships delivered by FE Colleges has declined over recent years, and I believe that the end of Frameworks, subcontracting and funding allocations will only increase this trend if we do not act.

This matters as our Colleges are the key to engaging young people at scale and if Colleges are not fully engaged in Apprenticeships then it will never become a large-scale option for large numbers of young people. With investment in Colleges set to increase it will also be a great shame if Apprentices miss out on the high-levels of technical expertise and excellent facilities that Colleges can contribute.

The same is true of employer engagement and involvement in the delivery of apprenticeships. As has often been said employers are responsible for the majority of an Apprentice’s time and learning (on the job). With the number of employer-providers now in reverse, it will be a missed opportunity if we do not find a safe method for incorporating the cutting-edge-expertise of industry experts.

For Apprenticeships to become the flagship training programme there must be room for Colleges, Employers, Universities, Independent training providers, Professional bodies and others to form partnerships and combine their wide range of expertise.

Over regulation and too much focus on counting on / off hours, sub-contracting percentages and ‘hybrid year-end success rates’ will never provide enough space for collaboration, expertise and specialisation to emerge. And our Apprenticeship programme will not fulfil its potential.

Whatever the post 2020 plan for Apprenticeships is, let us hope that it is one based on continued investment in expertise and not death by a thousand cuts!

Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Director, Kaplan Financial

Richard has over 20 years experience in delivering excellence in apprenticeships and training.

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