I'm really angry about the poorly considered apprenticeship proposals released last week. The initial optimism following their release and commitment to the apprenticeship levy has since been replaced by dismay as practitioners digest the details.
Perhaps the sector’s biggest contention is that the "simple" funding bands, which will incentivise providers to deliver to the easiest applicants in the easiest subject areas, and lead to the exclusion of many younger learners in deprived areas. I want to take that a step further and show how these proposals are discriminatory to at least one protected group and will undermine not just social mobility but also the generally progressive social policies since the 1990s.
These have been in place to support learners from deprived postcodes. They existed under Labour, Conservative and coalition administrations, so we can safely say they were a politically consensual approach to vocational learning. This government has decided that the market will decide the price of an apprenticeship and the funding required. Therefore there will be no need for area uplifts.
The abolition of area uplifts by postcode will hurt ethnic minorities far more than the white British majority. Therefore, this proposal of flat funding bands discriminates (unintentionally or otherwise) against ethnic minority learners. Inequality across racial groups is reinforced in the national apprentice achievement rates for 2014-15, which showed the following achievement rates by ethnicity:
- White British – 72.6 per cent
- Black – 65.4 per cent
- Mixed – 66 per cent
- Asian – 68.8 per cent
- Other – 70.6 per cent
Within this, there are big variations by ethnic group. More specifically, the proportion of people who live in low-income households is:
- 20 per cent for white people
- 30 per cent for Indians and black Caribbeans
- 50 per cent for black Africans
- 60 per cent for Pakistanis
- 70 per cent for Bangladeshis
Is the abolition of area uplifts wise in an environment where ethnic minority learners already experience disadvantage when it comes to apprenticeship achievements? Given that a majority of ethnic minority learners live in deprived postcodes and there will no longer be extra financial help to support them, we must deduce that, post-2017, they will experience increased disadvantage as a result of these proposals. This makes the funding bands and lack of additional finance support for areas of deprivation a regressive policy. It will underscore and exaggerate the obstacles to employment and education that learners from different minority groups experience.
Furthermore, there are of course plenty of poor white working-class people in deprived postcodes all over England. These stretch far from London and touch communities from all over the country. In fact, there are more 576,000 postcode uplifts that this government plans to consign to history for the sake of simplicity. These are real learners facing real obstacles.
So how does this chime with the new prime minister’s words upon her entry to 10 Downing Street? In her first speech, Theresa May said: "When it comes to opportunity, we won't entrench the advantages of the fortunate few, we will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you."
In my opinion, the words of Mrs May sound increasingly hollow. Apprenticeships have been and can be an unrivalled vehicle for social mobility in this country. However, with one fell swoop, an unjust and unreasonable set of proposals will destroy that ambition. If you are born poor, if you are born into an ethnic minority, then this particular proposal will result in less opportunity and less help. Unless area uplifts remain, what future is there for the girls and boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne?
And once again it was cross-party consensus that London, Home Counties and the South East generally were more expensive areas to deliver apprenticeship programmes. Costs are higher in terms of premises, staff wages and transport. These proposals require the market to decide the price that an apprenticeship will be. Presumably the market will encourage providers to negotiate a London price, a Berkshire price and a Kent price. This, of course, is ludicrous. An employer with apprentices all over the UK is not going to pay different prices for different areas. A company with one learner in Maidstone, Kent and one in Merton, London will expect a single price. Providers will have to find further cost savings to make this work and we all know when you cut investment in an apprenticeship you cut quality. This flat rate free market approach is a recipe for declining standards. When you add to this the fact that London has a significantly higher ethnic minority population than most regions, you get a double-whammy of inequality.
Apprenticeships are not a 'free market'
Former skills minister Nick Boles and his free-market buddies have laboured under a false premise for years that apprenticeships are like any other service and that they can operate in normal commercial conditions. Yet anyone with an ounce of experience will tell you that apprenticeships are self-evidently not a free market. They have relied on huge amounts of taxpayer subsidies for decades. I will credit all governments who used these subsidies to ensure equality of opportunity across England by manipulating formulae to ensure that areas of deprivation and expensive regions could function properly. These proposed funding caps and "simple rules" will undermine all our work for the sake of a free-market approach in an area that is essentially a public service. Applying a free-market set of rules to apprenticeships is as futile as doing so for the NHS, social services or indeed education generally.
I’ve worked in this sector for 15 years and I have never been so depressed as by these proposals. The funding bands, the abolition of area uplifts, the restrictions over who employers can contract with; they are mean-spirited. They harken back to less compassionate times, of hard-nosed bureaucracy and a flippant disregard to equality. The Skills Funding Agency states that the proposals are a result of consultations with employers and other stakeholders. If this is even remotely true, then I suggest that the SFA gets better advisers. These proposals are wrong, they are pernicious and they will be a disaster for apprentices and communities as a whole.
Matt Garvey is managing director of the West Berkshire Training Consortium
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