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'A ladder's no good if you can’t reach the first rung'

After the latest apprenticeships report, the so-called 'ladder of opportunity' has to become reality, says Stephen Evans

access to apprenticeships is key

After the latest apprenticeships report, the so-called 'ladder of opportunity' has to become reality, says Stephen Evans

Three cheers for the Education Select Committee report on apprenticeships. Now for the next steps in building those ladders of opportunity. 

We’ve made lots of progress on apprenticeships, which were at risk of virtually disappearing a few decades ago. At their best, our apprenticeships are world class. But that shouldn’t stop us recognising that we need to do better on both quality and access

The central focus of the apprenticeship system should be a relentless march on quality, as well as a laser-like commitment that everyone who could benefit from an apprenticeship should be able to access one. Quality must mean more than an Ofsted grade (though, of course, that matters). It’s also about the apprentice experience and workplace, as the committee rightly recognises. 

But I want to focus on access and progression. 

Robert Halfon, the committee's chair, often talks about the ladder of opportunity. A ladder is no good if you can’t reach its first rung. The committee rightly highlights that much more needs to be done to widen access to apprenticeships. This has been a driving force for so much of the Learning and Work Institute’s efforts – highlighting inequalities and working out new ways to tackle them. That includes inequalities facing care leavers (for whom a new £1,000 bursary is welcome) and people from BAME backgrounds (whose apprenticeship applications are less likely to succeed), ensuring social background is no barrier to the best apprenticeships, and tackling gender stereotypes

There are lots of good things going on, but too often they feel like isolated projects rather than a coherent whole. We need a full-on assault for fair access to apprenticeships. 

Supporting progression

You can’t climb very high on a ladder if it’s too short and doesn’t have many rungs. The committee rightly highlights the need for a focus on progression. How about the government publishing regular data on how many level 2 apprentices go on to level 3 apprenticeships, and so on? How about thinking about funding incentives to support this progression? How about drawing together best practice on helping people move on and up, as well as the support employers need to make this happen? 

Ladders are also no good if they are poorly constructed. We have some amazing apprenticeships, but not all match that standard. The committee is right to say we need to look at the role of subcontracting to make sure it’s limited to where it adds value. It's also right to say that poor-quality provision shouldn’t be tolerated. We should benchmark apprenticeship standards against the best in the world. 

I think sometimes the voices of apprentices get lost in this debate. So I was pleased to see the committee recommending a more formal role for the Institute for Apprenticeships' apprentice panel. This is something we have long argued for. 

Tackling low pay

One other area too little spoken about is apprentice pay. It cannot be right that one in five apprentices reports being paid below their legal minimum, and that our research shows one in five current or recent employers of apprentices doesn’t know all the minimum-wage rules. Pay links to costs, and the committee talks about the benefit system and the government’s manifesto pledge on travel costs

I’m not sure what the right answers are here (the committee suggests ending the apprentice wage rate over time), but I’m pleased someone’s talking about it. The Learning and Work Institute will be doing more thinking on this while the Low Pay Commission considers its views about the youth and apprentice minimum-wage rates and structures. 

Like any report, you’re never going to agree with everything. For example, I do worry about flexing the 20 per cent off-the-job training, given this is the minimum in many other countries (though it’s worth looking at how it works in practice). But overall, this is a report with the right starting point and some really good answers. 

The apprenticeship levy and wider reforms should be here to stay. But we’ve further to go to build a high-quality apprenticeship system accessible to all.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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