Welcome to the madness that is apprenticeships. Your predecessor, Robert Halfon, oversaw perhaps the most calamitous and chaotic period in our industry’s period. I have worked in the sector since 1999 and I have known nothing like it. Three ministers in 12 months has left us with uncertainty, instability and rock-bottom confidence. All you have to do is fix it.
Before the election, I wrote to your predecessor outlining the consequences of the haphazard approach towards contracting, subcontracting and funding. In response, I received the "party line": no response. Given that the electorate has seen fit to reject politics as usual, I hope you can bring much-needed clarity, common sense and unity to apprenticeships.
Here is a to-do list that may assist you:
- Find more allocation for non-levy apprentice customers. It is wonderful that those paying the apprenticeship levy will have an abundance of opportunities, but we don’t want a class system for employers with a privileged minority gorging on funding while every other employer is on the equivalent of wartime rations. Small- and medium-sized businesses are more likely to recruit younger people at levels 2 and 3 and create new jobs. I’d strongly advise a revisit of the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) allocation process to bring some confidence back into what constitutes 98.3 per cent of all employers.
- Clarify the longer-term contracting process. We have an unsatisfactory fudge between May and December 2017 which has destabilised the sector. Many sub-contractors may well go out of business because the promised opportunity to receive direct contracts was withdrawn. If they go, we’ll lose capacity and we’ll lose face with their customers, i.e. employers. The tender process was a complete farce that has wholly undermined the credibility of the ESFA. A swift resolution may mitigate the damage.
- Revisit funding bands for the most popular apprenticeships. We live in a service sector economy, with 76 per cent of our GDP from services. The funding bands for programmes such as business administration and care are simply too low for the provision of quality opportunities. Meanwhile, some sectors have funding bands that are overinflated. This will draw investment away from entry level skills and front-line jobs and into managerial training. I’m not sure tax payers would see this as a good deal.
- Treat colleges and providers equally – we can both be great. I think both groups are tired of the sometimes tribal language of your predecessors. We don’t want some institutions given advantages while others are left to the rigours of "the market". A more conciliatory and co-operative tone may help dispel worries that ministers and the ESFA are pro-college and anti-provider.
Finally, I hope that you heed the advice of the sector. The disasters that have been visited upon us are precisely because previous officials ignored colleges and providers. We can help you to be successful and deliver your manifesto promises in terms of apprenticeships. However, to put it plainly, compared to ministers and civil servants, we are better at this than you are.
To paraphrase the prime minister: "Your predecessors got us into this mess. Now you can get us out."
*Ms Milton is yet to be confirmed as skills minister by the Department for Education.