'Three million apprentices is not an objective that must be hit at any cost'
David Allison, managing director of apprenticeships provider GetMyFirstJob, writes:
Much has been made of David Cameron’s commitment to 3 million apprenticeships in the duration of this parliament. Within days of the election he had set up a "troubleshooter" taskforce. Made up of no less than eight MPs across the Cabinet Office, the Department for Education and and Department for Work and Pensions, it looks as if the group has got its work cut out before the minutes of the first meeting have been published.
The issues are myriad. Not only were new apprenticeships last year down significantly, but as has been pointed out by the IPPR, the age profile of these new apprenticeships does not reflect the objective of getting young people off to a great start in their careers; in many cases, "apprenticeship" appears to be used as a term for up-skilling or re-skilling older workers.
There are other practical issues too; changes to the funding system driven by the "trailblazer" schemes have caused much uncertainty in the education sector and the July summer budget has directly lead to the first short-term freeze on apprenticeship budgets that most can remember. These problems are compounded further by the cuts that are being dealt with in other areas of education. Sixth-form funding and FE college cuts have all added to competition for 16- to 18-year-olds within the education sector. In many cases, schools need to attract more into their A-level classes to make the books balance, and many FE colleges need to replace income from their slashed adult skills budget provision. Neither of these should have any impact on the way in which young people are guided through their options but, in the real world of education, they do. Significantly.
So, the government and its agencies must quickly provide a clear vision of the way forward for apprenticeships, and critically the way in which they integrate with other educational provision. This vision will not be easy to provide. We are not starting off with a clean sheet of paper, but need to address the underlying issues through absolute clarity that runs through all communications as well as the funding agreements with the many different players in the education space.
The government must set this vision out quickly and clearly, but that is the easy bit. When it comes to apprenticeships, the challenge is to ensure that the many stakeholders all understand the role that successful apprenticeships can play. For organisations they are a great way of recruiting new talent, of bringing in the next generation. For young people they are a great way to start in the world of work with access to great education that is aligned to the needs of the workplace. All those responsible for advising young people must understand this too. Whether you are a school governor, an employer giving talks in schools, a parent or youth group leader, your responsibility is to understand these options before making suggestions to those you advise.
Three million apprentices must not become a target that is viewed by government and its agencies as an objective that must be hit at any cost. This will simply lead to further distortions in the educational and funding system. It is simply one way of evaluating how well this vision has been set out, and then implemented by all of us.