Gillian Keegan, Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships in England.

On Wednesday's daily Government briefing, referring to the impact the COVID-19 crisis could have on youth unemployment, Prime Minister @BorisJohnson said: 

"For young people in particular, for whom the risk is highest of losing jobs, I think it's going to be vital that we guarantee apprenticeships"

What's your reaction to what Boris Johnson said about an Apprentice Guarantee?

It's clear, and anybody who has lived through any economic disruption will know, young people are particularly at risk, and it is vital that we give them full support.

I think what the prime minister knows, as we all know here in the Department for Education, is apprenticeships are a great route into the workplace. Of course, they have the advantage of you're working straight away as well, you're being productive, you're adding something to the economy, as well as gaining vital skills.

We're looking to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from this route, and obviously working out ways that we can support employers to encourage more apprenticeships, etc. We're still working through a whole series of options and proposals, but it's vital that we support young people during this time.

Both the prime minister and myself, particularly as I used the apprenticeship route myself, think it's an absolutely brilliant way into your career.

How do we protect the nearly half a million apprentices that are already on program and are due to complete within the next year?

We've been very focused on trying to support all the current apprentices. We've been introduced a number of flexibilities in terms of how the program works. Obviously, we've also encouraged all training for apprenticeships to go online where possible, and there's been a great response to that. Apprentices who are furloughed, we have enabled to continue with their apprenticeship training, and we've been flexible about how that's delivered as well. Obviously, endpoint assessments where they're coming up, we've been flexible about that as well. We've spoken to many employers who are obviously keen to keep on apprentices, and as you say particularly those that are due to complete within the coming year. So, we've offered a number of apprenticeships. The numbers of new starts have gone down. Many I think even the AELP put out some facts that many have moved their training online. So, you know, we're doing as much to work with the sector as we as we possibly can.

I think the bigger concern has been over new starts, if I'm honest, when you look at some of the numbers. Where there's uncertainty, we look at the business uncertainty we have in some key sectors, and of course some of those key sectors, such as retail and hospitality, there were a large number of apprentices in those sectors. It's clear if you're a business in that sector, right now is not your optimum time to be making decisions about future apprentices, we understand that.

I think the big challenge is how we can recover that as quickly as possible as we start to move through the next phases of coronavirus, and that's where we'll be putting our efforts.

Is it worth extending the two-year cut off for when levy funds can be used?

Of course, there'll be employers that will be calling for that. I would imagine that most of the things that we're focused on are probably things that are perhaps quicker than the two-year period. Two years is quite a long time anyway, we're hopeful that we'll have recovery in place during that time, we'll be hopeful that we can almost be back to businesses as usual if we can. So, two years is quite a long time, I think a lot of the programs we're really looking at focusing on have really got a shorter timeframe. We're looking at those things that are probably coming in towards the last quarter of this year and maybe during the first half of next year.

What role do you feel skills policy can play in supporting the economic and employment recovery from this pandemic?

Skills policy has a vital role to play in employment, full stop and maximising and optimising your value to the workplace, in keeping current, in changing careers. It's vital, it's underpinning policy. I think, in terms of the recovery, first of all, what we've got to remember is when we entered this economic disruption, which, of course, was almost instantaneous due to coronavirus, and global, which is a highly unusual factor for any recession. There is nothing that has happened in this way before. But when we, in the UK, entered this period, I think an important point to remember is we had almost full employment in the country, very low figures of unemployment, and we had huge skills shortages in quite a number of sectors. And actually, most of the conversation around skills was how do we get more people to train in the areas where there are massive skills shortages? Now, they were in health and social care, they were in teaching, they're in policing, they're in digital, everything digital, Science and technology, engineering, construction. There's quite a broad number of sectors where there were massive skills shortages.

Whilst those sectors, as many, have been disrupted, the underlying position of our economy is still strong, so once we start to recover, we will still uncover those skills shortages. So what we are trying to do is, as much as possible, use National career service, National retraining service, the Careers Enterprise Council as well working with schools, just to make sure that people are aware of where the sectors are where there are massive skill shortages, and massive demand for skills. So, I think that's one of the challenges that we have. The apprenticeship model is a very good way to try and focus on some of those opportunities, because the standards that have more recently, in the last year or so, been approved are very much supporting these skills gaps. So, there are apprenticeships up to degree level now in many standards now.

Could it be the time to re-orientate public investment towards younger people?

Well, I think they are for sure. I mean, one of the things I mean, you know, the apprenticeship reforms have been hugely successful and provided opportunities for many people at many different phases of their career. But, of course, we do want to make sure that young people have the opportunity to do an apprenticeship. So that is for sure a priority.

I have to say now, I'm a big fan of apprenticeships being used to upskill, to reskill for second careers and to facilitate second careers, to facilitate lifelong learning. I've seen some very inspiring examples of people who perhaps have been stuck in jobs that they didn't really particularly enjoy, but they pay the bills and mostly because they didn't have the full life chances that young people have today.

Listening to stories of people in their 40s and 50s, being able to realise their dream jobs, 30 years later effectively, is very inspiring as well. So, certainly we want to encourage that, and we want to encourage that opportunity. But making sure young people enter the workplace, they need training, they have very few skills that are suitable for the employer, and they have to be trained in that. So, we need make sure there is always a focus and emphasis on enabling that because, of course, they are the future, with long careers that will help them, they're natural digital natives. They add a lot to the workplace once they're in the workplace. So, we're very keen to make sure that young people succeed.

I know personally, I think apprenticeships in a fast moving, dynamic world are a great way to keep current. Because basically you're learning up to date, in the workplace, as you are also supplementing that with what I like to call career led study. So, I think it's a very good way, particularly a fast-moving technical environment of making sure that you are up to date and current and you're always studying things that employers’ value. That's what we've been really trying to bring together, making sure that the education locks in better with what employers value, particularly as we've gone through a number of tech changes, technological shifts in the last decades.

How do we protect the brand of apprenticeships and maintain the quality in the system going forwards?

It is vital that apprenticeships are associated with quality. The 80s is a time we do not want to go back to in terms of youth opportunity and employment. But if I think about it, when I left school at age 16 to start an apprenticeship, that was recognised as the golden ticket, in a way, it was the high-quality route. A lot of my cohort went on to YTSs, which didn't really offer a long enough period of training to really provide anybody with valuable skills that were transferable. That's actually the currency, why you're doing this. You want skills that are valuable to employers, and mostly you want them to be transferable. We don't stay in the same job for life, I've now worked in six different industries, in many countries all over the world. The skills that you have are there, and you build on them. So absolutely the quality has to be key.

And I like to see the ability for people to use the apprenticeship route to progress as well. I guess looking back, I started as a level two, then a level three, then did a level four, I think I skipped five and went on to six. But I didn't know when I started that I was doing a degree level apprenticeship, that's not how it was structured in those times. But what was vital is that the employer was there, willing to support me as far as I could go, and the progression routes and opportunity was there. High quality is absolutely vital, and I feel very strongly about this, because if I think about my own experience being a young working class girl from Liverpool, leaving a comprehensive school, without much of the sort of career structure and advice around, and without that many role models, and certainly none in terms of what I went on to do. I very much put my trust and faith in the organisations that I joined. That was both the employer, and the FE College that trained me, and then the university, which was the former polytechnic.

If that would have been a low-quality opportunity, I wouldn't have known on the way in, I'd have only known after I'd spent years doing something that wasn't valuable. I was very much reliant on them to make sure I had a high quality experience, so I feel very strongly that, particularly if you don't have that structure around you, you don't have role models around you, your faith and trust is entirely in the organisations, both the employers and the training providers. And we cannot let them down.

Do you think End-point Assessment is still a really important blueprint for the whole apprenticeship quality model?

Definitely, as long as it delivers. One of the things I'm concerned about has been there are still low numbers of completion in some sectors. We know we need to figure out what it is that needs to adjust to make sure that we're measuring the right things, or we're doing it at the right time, et cetera. Because, you know, I can't understand why you wouldn't have a completed apprenticeship, it is so valuable. So, there will still be probably some further things we need to look at until we get that right. But you can't have too much quality, in my view.

What are your thoughts, and what can you share about some of the principles that will drive the FE White Paper?

First of all, I think it's very exciting, so I'm absolutely delighted to be in this role, at this time. It's the biggest reform to technical education in decades. Obviously, we're starting with T levels as a vital pillar of that as well. We've almost got a perfect storm in terms of a recognition of the value of skills and apprenticeships, and technical vocational qualifications, by employers, they're very highly valued. Obviously, we've had a shift in technology as well, which is going to enable us to have much further reach in terms of skills training, again, through all ages.

You've got the conservative electoral victory, which the shape of that, the type of MPs now that we have representing those new blue wall seats. Many former apprentices, I think I'm still the only degree level apprentice in the house, but certainly not the only apprentice. There's plenty who've come up that route, who highly value that route. Of course, you've got the secretary of state himself who is a product of the FE Well. He went to a further education college, and myself, who also went to a further education college. So, we completely get the value of apprenticeships, of further education, of skills training, of technical training. Myself, I've worked in business for 30 years, on the other side of recruiting and trying to make sure that you have the latest skills, in terms of what you're trying to do as a business, it's vital your talent is everything.

I think we're in an exciting place. Some of the things that have been done after the Sainsbury review, after the Philip Auger review. Some of the recommendations that were made there, they've been slowly being worked on in the DfE. We've got some very good building blocks to make sure we've got a much clearer qualification, with many more routes into the workplace, and into further education, into apprenticeships, just making sure that it's clearer. Obviously, we've got more work to do in terms of careers as well, so that people have all the knowledge they need. Again, technology will very much help us with that.

I'm very excited, I think it's what's required. Getting the workplace and the employers to work much more collaboratively with the Department for Education, and all those involved in providing education and training, is something that's happened as a result of the work in apprenticeship reform. It's been taken and used again and built upon for T levels. That's what we're building on, that foundation, which I think is very solid.

Gillian Keegan, Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships in England

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