A former skills minister has spoken frankly about the government's apprenticeship and technical education reforms.
Now a Conservative MP on the back benches, Nick Boles spoke to an audience at City Lit college, an adult education college in central London were he was presented with a fellowship award.
During his two years a skills minister from 2014-16, Boles was instrumental in introducing the apprenticeship levy and commissioning the Sainsbury review of vocational education that led to recommendations to create T levels.
Speaking about the government’s implementation of the apprenticeship reforms, Mr Boles said he has been “worried, as one would naturally be”, by the fall in apprenticeship starts since the levy was introduced in April 2017. He had, however, recently changed his mind, Mr Boles explained. “Actually I’m now not very worried,” he said, adding: “I’ve done a bit of research and I think what is happening is in a sense both entirely predictable and mostly positive.”
Mr Boles said he believes apprenticeships are improving in quality. He told the audience “We all knew that there were a lot of crap apprenticeships out there that had no training content, that the employer was not seeing as a way to bring on a new skilled workforce but just saw as a way of paying someone much less than the minimum wage.
“The public was effectively being rooked because the public was paying for it and because the employer wasn’t paying for it they weren’t taking any trouble over it. The young person was effectively being cheated of a qualification.
“What I believe is mainly happening with the reforms is that a huge number of them are basically falling away because employers are suddenly having to realise that they are paying for it. The larger employers who are actually paying the levy are saying if we are paying for this tax – because that is what it is – at least let’s spend it on something worthwhile.
“So they are taking a bit of time to commission training that is genuinely high quality and is genuinely going to help them.”
3 million target 'always a nonsense’
Mr Boles warned that the government should not be wedded to the 3 million target he helped set.
He said: “If that happens then and we end up missing our 3 million target – well, I’m out of government now. The 3 million target was always a nonsense. They are always created for elections. I remember the conversation about it [in 2015]. We had hit 2 million in the previous Parliament and somebody in number 10 said ‘well you can’t just go for two and a half million because that sounds Mickey Mouse, so you have got to go for three million.’
“I don’t care how many there are what we want is really high quality, employer-invested apprenticeships. If we get that then the reforms will have been a success."
Parity of esteem 'gets my goat'
Mr Boles also addressed the decision by education secretary Damian Hinds to reject a one-year delay to the implementation of the new T-level qualifications, in spite of a letter to the education secretary from permanent secretary Jonathan Slater, in which he said the delivery of the T-level programme to the timetable set out was "ambitious".
Mr Boles said: “On T levels, I guess I’m impatient. I do see there has been a little bit of tension with the civil service over the timetable. In that, I would be on Damian Hinds', the education secretary’s side. Surely we can get a T level ready to teach in two years, four years after they were originally announced?
“Equally I do accept the best reforms are the reforms that are implemented gradually. Beyond that I am not close enough to the detail but I think the ambition is right. We do need to elevate the reputation of technical education in this country.
“What really gets my goat is people talking about parity of esteem. You’ll get parity of esteem when you get parity of quality. You don’t get it by politicians making speeches and declaring that there’s parity of esteem. It will be when young people think actually, rather than going and doing that degree at an academic university I’m going to go and do that apprenticeship because it’s going to give me better skills and a better life.”