The government is undertaking one of the biggest reforms to England’s skills system in recent years. To address the country’s future skills needs, we need to vastly improve the quality and availability of technical education.
Businesses have long called for this and are absolutely committed to working with the government to deliver it.
Two essential elements of this are getting the apprenticeship levy and T levels right. This means convincing the 26 per cent of firms that are writing the apprenticeship levy off as a tax, not a skills policy.
Doing this will go a significant way to reversing the dramatic 40 per cent fall in apprenticeships starts over the last couple of years.
'Root and branch review'
Encouragingly, the government has listened and accepted the need to enter a second phase of apprenticeship reform.
After working with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and our members, the chancellor announced a £700 million package of changes last year in the budget, including raising the cap on transfers and slashing apprenticeship costs for small businesses by halving the co-investment rate.
But most importantly was the commitment to a fundamental root-and-branch review of the entire levy after 2020 – something that drew a big sigh of relief for many CBI members.
Less noticed at the time, but also important, was an extra £5 million for the newly renamed Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE).
'Challenging first two years'
The Institute for Apprenticeships – as it was known before its name officially changed today – was established to give businesses a greater voice in the design of the English skills system.
Yet, it’s fair to say it’s had a challenging first two years. All too often and to the frustration of many firms, the tension between the IfATE’s role as an arms-length government body, as well as being independent and employer-led, has been clear.
Additional funding for the IfATE funding is therefore welcome, but it needs to be spent well and with good purpose.
That’s why today the CBI is publishing the first in a series of 2019 apprenticeship reports, called Getting Apprenticeships Right.
'The government should empower the IfATE'
This business-backed blueprint recommends that the government gives the IfATE the independence and clout it needs to reform and regulate the English skills system. It calls for a new wave of government action to ensure apprenticeships lead to high-skilled, high-paid jobs that fit firms’ needs now and in the future.
First, the government must make clear that the IfATE is the principal body for vocational skills in England with the clout to hold policymakers and the skills sector to account.
The government should empower the IfATE to publicly set its own success criteria for the skills system, including progression and employment destinations, wage data and the closing of skills gaps.
And the IfATE must also carry out the long-promised review of existing apprenticeship standards and map them onto clear progression paths for people looking to take these new qualifications. This also must mean the IfATE providing an annual report on our skills system to parliament, with the time given for MPs to debate it.
'A big issue for business'
Second, the IfATE needs to build on progress so far to make the process, so-called “trailblazers”, by which apprenticeship standards are approved more efficiently.
This means making sure there are enough people at the IfATE with the right skills to run a smooth and consistent process.
Getting these standards in place remains a big issue for business as delays mean many can’t access the training they need.
With employer levy funds due to start expiring from April 2019, the government must urgently set up an appeals system that gives employers longer to spend their money where apprenticeship standards remain in development.
Competing on a global stage
Finally, the IfATE must be at the heart of a successful T levels system. The Department for Education should immediately set out a timetable for the IfATE to take full responsibility for T levels and proposed “higher T levels”, allowing them to make sure employers and the public understand and have confidence in the value and relevance of these new qualifications.
Importantly, explaining how they fit in the whole system, including where they will sit alongside apprenticeship or replace them, will be vital.
The blueprint published today demonstrates business has thought long and hard about how it can step up and play its part.
It’s time to draw on its vast experience to make sure the English skills system works for everyone, supporting young people from all background into great careers, whilst also delivering what companies need to compete on the global stage.
John Cope, head of education and skills policy at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)