Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, writes:
In 2013 the government set out its proposals to implement changes to the apprenticeship programme. These proposals were based on recommendations made in the Richard Report. Since that time discussions have continued about the structure of the new apprenticeship standards as the Trailblazer projects take shape.
The objectives of the proposals were to engage more employers in the development of apprenticeship programmes and to ensure they meet the needs of employers. They were in line with recommendations for change supported by AELP over many years, namely greater employer choice, simplified funding systems and delivery focused on the needs of employers and apprentices.
AELP has expressed concern about some of the recommendations such as the introduction of grading, the replacement of functional skills with GCSEs and specific requirements for end assessment because they were not employer driven and would add complexity and cost to delivery. The discussions on these issues continue through the Trailblazer groups.
More fundamentally the government also ran a consultation process setting out different options for funding apprenticeships. In the autumn statement they announced that the funding would be routed through employers even though the results of the consultation have not yet been published.
This recommendation would also involve compulsory contributions by employers, including even the smallest employers, and possibly even in respect of provision for those groups needing most support: the 16, 17 and 18 year olds.
These proposals threaten the long term sustainability of the apprenticeship programme which underpins the skill strategy for economic growth. Small businesses will not take on the responsibility, risk and cost of managing the funding system which will result in a loss of real opportunities for young people.
AELP has recommended a different approach that gives employers more control over the development of the new standards, a choice of managing their own funding contract or working with an experienced training provider. The important element is that this should be the choice of employers rather than an imposed system based on HMRC processes.
It is interesting to see that the British Chambers of Commerce agree with this approach which they set out in their recent skills manifesto and other employer representative bodies have expressed some concern about how the implementation of these reforms might affect the engagement of small and medium sized businesses. Let us not forget that many apprentices work for an employer with only one or two apprentices.
What is key is that the apprenticeship changes build on a successful programme which receives very high satisfaction ratings from both employers and apprentices. We do need change and that change has to give employers more choice.
We have to make apprenticeships for young people a real option and we need to build on the introduction of the new traineeship programme to create more opportunities on established programmes. AELP has pushed for a preparatory programme for some time but we have to make the programme flexible and responsive to meet the needs of employers and young people.
We have a great opportunity to make apprenticeships a very successful cornerstone of an effective skills strategy. A partnership approach involving employers, apprentices, government, training providers and other stakeholders such as awarding organisations can make the difference and create a new drive to create more opportunities for skills development in the workplace.