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On the anniversary of the levy we brought together leading employers, providers and researchers to consider the future of apprenticeships policy. What did we learn?

Last week JP Morgan, the German foundation Bertelsmann Stiftung, and the Education Policy Institute (EPI) launched the report Apprenticeship training in England – a cost-effective model for firms?.

Led by the global apprenticeships expert Stefan Wolter with support from EPI, the research explored the benefits of a Swiss-style apprenticeships system for employers and young people in England.  

The report found that companies and apprentices in most sectors could benefit from changes to the current delivery model. These changes include expanding the length of apprenticeships, especially among 16 year-olds and ensuring that training in sectors dominated by low-skilled work is of higher quality - so that it pays off in the long-run for firms and apprentices. The full list of recommendations can be found here.

The new analysis was launched at our Apprenticeships that Work for Everyone conference last week, where its findings were presented, before a lively discussion was held around the future of England’s apprenticeships policy.

Flexiblity

 

The CBI’s Neil Carberry issued a call for far greater flexibility around the levy – arguing that in its current form, the levy actively “mitigates against real innovation in delivery of apprenticeships”.

He claimed that the government’s 3 million target was meaningless unless it also guaranteed good career progression – something that was not built in to current policy.

Stability

Carberry also expressed regret over the lack of stability in the apprenticeship system. Countries like Germany and Norway, cited in the Sainsbury independent panel report as examples of best practice, have well-established tripartite discussion systems - where employers, the government, and social agents make decisions regarding apprenticeship training, meaning changes require wide consensus, and policy stability is the norm.

Organisations like AELP welcomed the focus on younger apprentices, as 60 per cent of apprentices today are aged 19 or older. This triggered a discussion on what an apprenticeship is, and what its purpose should be.

In countries like Switzerland, apprenticeships are designed as an alternative to upper secondary education for 16 year-olds.

This, of course, is not the norm in England - where apprenticeships are also used by companies to retrain existing employees. This fact was acknowledged by John Lewis’ Andrea Haug, and by the Association of Colleges’ Theresa Frith.

Stefan Wolter, the report’s author, responded that there is an open debate around what an apprenticeship is, and what purposes it should serve. Wolter called for apprenticeships to be adaptable enough to respond to each country’s characteristics.

Devolution

A third element of discussion was around devolution of skills policy. This was a demand voiced by a Centre for Cities’ representative, who stressed that different local realities would need context-sensitive responses.

This demand found opposition from John Lewis’ Andrea Haug, who said that as a national employer they are already struggling to put in place different policies for each UK nation, and that differentiated local policies would likely undermine business performance.

From the conference we learned there is consensus around a number of ideas, such as the appetite to increase take-up amongst young people and the need for more flexibility in the use of the levy.

However, strong differences of opinion clearly remain in some areas - such as with the desirable length of apprenticeships, whether to allow for local differentiation, or more fundamentally, what apprenticeships should be for.

Heated discussions around the policy direction, it seems, do not look like subsiding in the near future – and our report makes a timely, robust contribution, offering valuable lessons for England from countries that have developed successful apprenticeship systems.

Gerard Dominguez-Reig, Senior Researcher, Post-16 and Skills, Education Policy Institute

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