James Scales, Head of Education Policy Unit, Centre for Social Justice

Cushioned by the security of paid employment, the chance to build new skills, and the prospect of a job beyond that, apprenticeships are powerful agents of progress. They increase employability and earning potential, without the weight of student debt tied to learners’ futures. They allow people to retrain in a fast-changing world. And by tracking demand in the market, they boost our economy.

And yet, as we outline in a new report, we have not yet realised their potential. The number of apprenticeships dropped by a quarter between 2014/15 and 2018/19. Some lacked currency and had to go, but there is plenty of scope for many more high-calibre apprenticeships.

Part of the problem is that non-levy paying employers operate in a world in which apprenticeships are effectively capped. They can apply for funding to support training costs but the government limits the number of apprenticeships it supports each month. There is considerable untapped potential here: as of January 2020, non-levy payers lacked the resources to fund around 85,000 apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships also lean too heavily towards highly qualified employees, and not enough towards school leavers. And this is not helped by the fact that some employers use levy funds to rebadge existing training, or to accredit skills that people already have.

Pupils know too little about apprenticeships, in large part because there is a lack of careers advice on apprenticeships. And employers are often unaware of the support that exists to help them; according to YouGov/CSJ polling, 43 per cent of those who employ apprentices are not aware of any form of financial support available to them.

In addition, although there are plenty of excellent training providers, employers do not always find it easy to secure the right off-the-job training.

And non-completion is a concern. Around a third of apprentices who reach the end of their terms have not finished and in some cases, individuals drop out for perfectly avoidable reasons.

In our report, we outline several proposals that would craft a clear pathway to a stronger apprenticeship offer.

Here are just three of them:

First, remove the cap on government-backed training for non-levy payers.

We need a system where apprenticeship numbers flow to their natural destinations, but because many SMEs cannot afford training costs, that will never happen unless we have a specific non-levy budget. If the government wants to limit spending, it could restrict this to areas where there are skills shortages.

Second, leverage the government’s role as an enormous employer.

It could promote apprenticeships to fill public-sector vacancies, for example in nursing. It could also harness infrastructure projects, like those relating to high-speed broadband, rebuilding schools, green buses and HS2. And, as it spends around £250 billion a year on procurement, there is plenty of scope to promote apprenticeships in the terms of its external contracts, too.

Third, shore up our offer for school leavers.

Apprenticeships should play a part in reskilling established workers, but not at the expense of posterity – not least in an economic climate that is rapidly extinguishing young people’s prospects – and government should fund 16–18-year old apprentices’ training. But there is little point in doing this if pupils do not know enough about apprenticeships, as is often the case. We must, therefore, also get a proper grip on careers advice and should take a firmer stance on the minority of schools that frustrate meaningful dialogue between trainers and pupils.

It is time to reboot apprenticeships. If we get this right, we could see a much-needed shift towards vocational training – and with it, a more seamless fit between the skills we need and the ones we learn.

James Scales, Head of Education Policy Unit, Centre for Social Justice

James oversees the education team’s policy and advocacy work, including on apprenticeships, higher education, childcare and lifelong learning. He is a qualified lawyer and prior to joining the CSJ, he practised at Dentons, an international law firm.

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