The Social Mobility Commission has published new research showing that those with the lowest qualification levels are the least likely to access publicly-funded learning.
This will not be news for many of us. Indeed, it endorses the results of Learning and Work Institute’s adult participation in learning survey (which the Social Mobility Commission kindly quote).
This shows stark class divides that have barely changed in the 20 years we’ve been running the survey. But it is always good to have the message reiterated and it is a helpful corralling of the evidence.
The second report, from Policy Connect, showed inequalities in access to degree apprenticeships. Degree apprenticeships are, in my view, an exciting development and their numbers have grown rapidly over the last couple of years (albeit from a low base).
Further to travel
However, the new research shows that disadvantaged school leavers have to travel 12 times further to get to them than their wealthier peers do. There’s been controversy about the number of apprenticeships at this level – but we also need to look at who gets them.
There is a theme that unites these two reports. We will not get fair access to learning and skills for all groups without sufficient effort and incentives.
You can see this in the broader debate about apprenticeships today. The government trumpets the changing pattern of apprenticeships (more at higher levels, fewer at lower levels) as being the product of employer choice and therefore a “good thing”.
Others argue that this is bad for social mobility and means too many people miss out on the chance to get a foot on the ladder.
'What we need are ladders'
My view is that neither presents a full picture of where we are and where we need to be. It’s not that only level 2 apprenticeships are good for social mobility – degree apprenticeships can offer a new route into professions that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.
What we need are ladders between levels and across sectors and occupations – the message should be: wherever you want to go, there’s a pathway to get there.
Nor is it the case that employer leadership will always lead to bad outcomes for social mobility. Employers are behaving in a rational way for them given the incentives they face and the engagement they’ve had.
Levy payers want to maximise use of the money sat in their digital accounts and are investing more in those with the most skills, as they did before the levy.
'We need a new levy architecture'
For me the answer isn’t to say we should take power away from employers, nor that we must just accept the current situation.
Instead, we need to change the incentives employers, providers and individuals face, and engage them in the process.
The government should set a new architecture and let employers choose within that.
On incentives, there’s a range of measures the government could take:
- They could require an additional contribution (beyond levy payments) to higher level apprenticeships for those aged-25 and over.
- They could increase incentives to take on young apprentices; they could cap the proportion of employers levy pots they can spend on older workers or higher apprenticeships.
- They could add an incentive payment for apprenticeships in sectors prioritised in the Industrial Strategy.
- They could follow Learning and Work Institute advice and introduce an apprentice premium giving a flexible incentive payment that could be locally targeted.
'The social justice and fairness case'
This is not an exhaustive list, and I’m sure there’ll be ideas on it you disagree with. The point is, the current system sets financial incentives for employers. It is possible to change these incentives.
On engagement, it is not a surprise that employers – given the current incentive structure – have focused more on training for those with already high skills. This is the pattern of employer investment in training over many decades.
To change this will take more than incentives alone. We’ve been working with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) across England to find ways to deal with this.
Making the social justice and fairness case is one way to engage employers – most get this.
'Move beyond analysis to action'
Trusted intermediaries, such as accountants, chambers of commerce and legal advisors, are one way to engage employers who may not otherwise engage in learning.
We also need to be clear on the business case for training those with lower qualifications and widening access to training and employment opportunities.
We’re not short of evidence of unequal access to learning. Learning and Work Institute research has shown how a lack of flexible apprenticeships locks out those who need flexible working arrangements; how apprenticeship applicants from a black, Asian or minority ethnicity (BAME) background are half as likely to succeed in getting an apprenticeship; and how gender segregation means women are massively underrepresented in sectors such as engineering.
The challenge now is to move beyond analysis to action, so everyone has a fair chance to learn.
Stephen Evans is the chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute