'Apprenticeships: Overspending but underachieving?'

Following the NAO's critical report on apprenticeships, Fiona Aldridge argues that it's time to heed the warning signs

Fiona Aldridge

Fiona Aldridge says DfE is overspending but underachieving on apprentices

Today’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO), assessing the value for money of the government’s apprenticeship programme makes for sobering, if not unsurprising, reading. It’s an important reminder, as we celebrate National Apprenticeships Week, that while the best of our apprenticeships are world class, more work is needed to ensure that quality is consistent across the the programme, and that those who could benefit from an apprenticeship, have the opportunity to do so.

So what can we learn from today’s report? The government is very unlikely to hit its target for 3 million starts by March 2020. Indeed to do this, the rates of starts would need to double for the remainder of the period.

To date, employers have made limited use of levy funds to support new apprenticeships. In 2017-18, levy payers used just 9 per cent of the funds available to them - £170 million of the £2.2 billion available.

Read more: DfE unlikely to meet apprenticeship target, says NAO

More news: Tes launches #InspiringApprentices campaign

Background: Apprenticeships: 'Talk about what's good and bad'

'Extra upfront investment'

Yet despite this, there are very real concerns about the long-term sustainability of the programme. Even if starts remain at current levels, future spending could rise rapidly given employer preference for high-cost apprenticeships. The average cost of training an apprentice on a standard is now double that allowed for when budgets were set.

In short, we appear to be in danger of overspending, while simultaneously underachieving in our ambition to create a world-class apprenticeship system.

At the Learning and Work Institute, our work on apprenticeships has focussed around two key themes of quality and access; both of which have been rightly picked up by the NAO as areas for concern.

Apprenticeships transparency needed

In relation to quality, the report acknowledges the role of new standards in ensuring that apprenticeships better meet the needs of employers, though there is criticism too of the speed at which these are being introduced. Importantly, however, it is recognised that a quality apprenticeship is not solely about what is set out in the standard, but should also be measured by the outcomes achieved.

Does the apprenticeship lead to permanent employment, to higher pay, to further progression? What is the impact on productivity and wider business performance? A transparent and robust set of performance measures is critical if we truly want to understand and improve the quality and value of apprenticeships.

On access, the report acknowledges that the government is on track to meet its targets around widening access to ethnic minorities and to apprentices with a learning, difficulty or health problem – but is critical that these targets lack ambition.

'More needs to be done'

We too believe much more needs to be done to make apprenticeships more accessible. Our research on the under-representation of women in engineering apprenticeships highlights the challenge of engaging women in typically male-dominated sectors. We’ve also recently published a range of resources for employers to support and encourage them to take on care leavers and young apprentices more generally.

As National Apprenticeship Week clearly shows, high-quality apprenticeships have the potential to kickstart rewarding careers, and meet the future skills needs of individual businesses and our wider economy. If we are to ensure that the programme fulfils this potential, we must heed the warning signs and take action now.

Fiona Aldridge is director for policy and research at the Learning and Work Institute


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