Apprenticeship levy: 'Permission to panic, Captain Mainwaring...'

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You knew things were getting tense in Dad’s Army when Lance Corporal Jones’ incessant cries of “Don’t panic!” were replaced by “Permission to panic, sir”. It seems that such a tipping point may have been reached regarding the apprenticeship levy.

The planned introduction of the levy in April 2017 always sounded ambitious. Last July the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) called for the launch to be postponed to allow “sufficient time to implement this effectively”.

But skills minister Nick Boles has steadfastly insisted that the government is sticking to its planned timetable. “The levy will be coming in April 2017, and we will be fixing Britain’s skills problems,” he told MPs last week. Introducing new government IT systems is notoriously fraught with difficulties, but that sounds pretty unequivocal.

To date, the only major deviation from the plan was the announcement in March that the digital voucher system would not be introduced for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) at the same time as for levy payers.

“It just means there is less of a dramatic change both for training providers and for small employers who are not paying the levy,” Mr Boles explained at the time. Exactly how much SMEs will be expected to contribute in this transitional period, however, is yet to be confirmed.

But other than that, all the official rhetoric suggests that the April 2017 levy launch is set in stone. This goes some way to explaining the rising anxiety levels, particularly among employers who are waking up to the fact that they are going to have to get their heads around this new system pretty darn quick. Eleven months will pass extremely quickly for employers making radical changes to the way they work and recruit.

And many still feel unable to make decisions until more details emerge about how the levy will operate. New guidance published last month answered some questions; more details could be forthcoming at the AELP’s national conference next month.

Radical rethink?

But business leaders are concerned that this may still not give employers enough time to prepare. The CBI has called for a “radical rethink” of the levy plans. Manufacturers’ organisation the EEF has called on the government to delay the levy introduction until September 2017 at the earliest to avert what it describes as the “looming car crash”.

Just this week the Strategic Development Network warned that the levy amounted to a “step in the dark” for employers, with many struggling to understand how they’ll achieve a return on what they pay.

And these worries are just around how the levy is supposed to work. As our story opposite points out, many influential figures are deeply concerned about whether the new system could end up leaving government funds vulnerable to waste, misuse or, at worst, fraud.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has said it will be publishing “detailed funding rules that will provide further information on exactly how apprenticeship funding can be used” in draft form in October, with the final version due in December.

For the beleaguered civil servants struggling to prepare the ground, that may sound troublingly close, but for the employers and providers involved, desperate for concrete details to work with, a long seven months of waiting lie ahead.

It’s not yet time to panic. But it’s more important to get the levy introduction right than for it to be on schedule. Returning to Dad’s Army, it might be pertinent for those driving the levy to consider the question frequently posed by Sergeant Wilson: “Are you sure that’s wise, sir?”

@stephenexley

This is an article from the 13 May edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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