Recent negative media coverage of apprenticeships has focused on problems with the levy and reduced numbers starting as apprentices. But this criticism simply does not tell the whole story and ignores the wider context: apprenticeships are in the midst of a major government reform programme designed to raise their quality and now is not the time to lose our bottle.
Under these reforms, employers are replacing the old frameworks which were not fit for purpose and designing new high-quality apprenticeship standards in a much wider range of occupations and at higher skills levels, up to degree and masters level in some cases.
The apprenticeship levy – paid by employers with an annual salary bill exceeding £3 million – is key to this, effectively doubling the annual investment available for apprenticeship training from previous levels. It presents a real opportunity for businesses if they choose to take it.
'Faster and better'
Lots of businesses have done just that, kick-starting some great apprenticeship programmes, and over 2,600 employers have been involved in developing the new apprenticeship standards since 2014, through "trailblazer" employer groups formed to define the knowledge, skills and behaviours required by each of these new apprenticeship occupations.
Over 270 of these new standards are now approved for delivery, a role the Institute for Apprenticeships took over last year as the new public body created to oversee quality. A further 270 standards are currently under development. The institute has recently introduced its new "faster and better" reforms to increase efficiency and speed up the process to approve new standards; 60 new standards have been approved since the beginning of this year, a 33 per cent increase on previous approval rates.
More than 100,000 people have now started on these new, high-quality apprenticeships. While the number of starts has dropped overall, that is due to the number of starts on the old frameworks declining; the growth in starts on the new standards has increased by 850 per cent in the last year.
Many more apprentices are starting on more advanced apprenticeships in areas such as digital, law and accountancy, as well as the more traditional areas of engineering and construction. Almost three-quarters of all new apprenticeships approved or in development are at level 3 (A-level equivalent) or higher. And over 60 per cent of people starting on new apprenticeship standards are levy-supported, showing that levy-paying employers are working well with the new system.
Apprentices are also receiving more training – an expected average of 670 hours throughout their apprenticeship this year compared with 540 hours last year. A fifth of any apprenticeship must now be dedicated to training that is completed off the job.
The apprenticeship reforms offer a tremendous opportunity, but one which requires employers and all elements of the training and education establishment to get on board and remain focused on the goal – to transform the skills landscape, fill employer’s skills shortages, provide transformational opportunities for people seeking to upskill themselves and, ultimately, to improve the productivity of this country.
We want to improve the apprenticeships offer in this country and we are going to keep working to do just that.
Sir Gerry Berragan is chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships