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'Government reforms risk putting the whole apprenticeship system into reverse'

David Harbourne, director of policy and research for the Edge Foundation, writes:

As Apprenticeship Week gets into full swing, no doubt we’ll see politicians from all sides of the House enthusing about work-based training. And quite right, too.

The UK is in desperate need for people with craft and technical skills, and apprenticeships are an ideal means to provide them. Apprentices learn skills for real, in the workplace as well as the classroom.

The good news is that in a survey for the Edge Foundation by PCP, a huge majority of parents (75.1 per cent) now recognise apprenticeships as a good alternative to university. It’s a great time to expand apprenticeships.

But I’m worried it won’t happen, because the apprenticeship system is undergoing reforms which risk putting the system into reverse.

When Modern Apprenticeships were developed two decades ago, the main "customer" was the apprentice. The intention was to develop broad and transferable skills that went beyond the immediate needs of individual employers, as a launch pad for lasting careers. In addition, apprentices gained qualifications recognised in all parts of the UK.

In contrast, the current reforms start with the employer, not the apprentice.

As a starting point, employers have been urged to come together to write new, short, apprenticeship standards – a summary of the skills and knowledge needed to perform a particular job. However, different standards are being set for more or less the same jobs.

We could easily end up with well over a thousand new standards, which will be confusing to employers and apprentices alike. By comparison, Switzerland – which has one of the best apprenticeship systems in the world – has just 270 standards covering the whole economy.

When it comes to delivering apprenticeships, employers will have more choice and discretion in deciding the content of off-the-job apprentice training. There is a risk that they will only seek training which meets their own immediate needs, limiting access to the wider skills and knowledge which prepare apprentices for the future. It also means that apprentices will no longer be guaranteed a nationally-recognised qualification.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the government’s plan to have employers pay up to one third of external training and assessment costs. At the moment, very few employers make cash contributions to these costs – instead, they are fully funded by the government.

Research commissioned by the government indicates that the number of apprentices aged 19 and over would fall by 73 per cent if employers had to pay 50 per cent of external training and assessment costs. In practice, the government has set the contribution at a maximum of 33.3 per cent. Nevertheless, the combination of cost and red tape is enough to deter a lot of employers.

Apprenticeships are without doubt a great way to prepare people for careers, and we need to do everything we can to ensure the system remains a success.

First, apprenticeship funding must be kept simple.

Second, we need to let colleges and training providers deal with the red tape and funding on behalf of employers.

Third, the people with the biggest stake in apprenticeships are the apprentices themselves. They should be entitled to a broad-based training programme, leading to nationally-recognised qualifications.

Apprenticeships are exactly what the UK needs – helping young people improve their long-term employment prospects whilst meeting the future skill needs of the UK economy. But it will be the responsibility of the next government to ensure that the apprenticeship system remains appealing and accessible to young people and employers alike.

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