The Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ national conference is less than a week away, and delegates will be very keen to hear what skills minister Anne Milton has to say about the apprenticeship reforms. In particular, about the start numbers which are now falling way behind the curve for achieving the government’s 3 million manifesto target.
For us, it is not just about the raw total of starts. The reforms should be about a successful balance of provision from level 2 to level 7, but the proportion of apprenticeship starts at level 2 and for young people has been steadily falling since the levy was introduced. AELP believes that this is bad for social mobility, workforce productivity and for meeting employers’ skills needs with Brexit almost upon us.
It is extraordinary how many policymakers and opinion-formers don’t appreciate how significant level 2 attainment is for both the economy and the large proportion of young people who leave school without it. AELP often has to point out that it’s impossible for a young person to embark on skills training or technical education at level 3 without having access to a level 2 programme first. Whether it is via an apprenticeship or some other form of further education, recognition of achievement at level 2 is vital for motivation and progression.
Lack of recognition
The lack of recognition has prompted us to make a major policy submission to the government on the importance of level 2 provision, as ministers start to consider their spending review bids and to think about the possible outcomes of the post-18 education review, as well as some immediate action required.
Ministers can be understandably pleased about the recent record employment figures but they should also be concerned that youth unemployment remains stubbornly above the half-million mark. We believe that this is linked to the fact that over 42 per cent of the school population at 16 have not achieved a full level 2, thereby reducing their chances of gaining sustainable employment. For these school leavers, the AELP submission advocates a meaningful set of level 2 pathways, along with robust standalone qualifications, for apprenticeships and as part of the introduction of T levels.
The submission provides powerful evidence of the huge reliance that key sectors have on workers qualified at level 2 and the very concerning implications of this if migratory controls are introduced after Brexit. Despite their importance, level 2 starts in apprenticeships have halved since the levy was introduced, and some of these sectors do not have new apprenticeship standards in place to help fill the resulting skills shortages. This is why we are urging Anne Milton not to wait for the review outcomes, but to rebalance immediately the apprenticeship levy reforms to reverse the sharp fall in level 2 apprenticeships. For 16- to 24-year-olds at levels 2 and 3, the minister should suspend employer contributions for non-levy payers or for those that exceed their levy. The DfE should also secure a guaranteed annual apprenticeship budget for non-levy paying SMEs who offer more lower-level apprenticeships.
AELP strongly repudiates the maligning of level 2 apprenticeships as not being “proper apprenticeships”. It is completely unjustified, especially since the introduction of the new standards. The submission’s appendix includes the lists of skills, knowledge and behaviours required under a standard and it beggars belief that anyone, after reading these lists, would maintain that a person completing such a programme could not call themselves an apprentice. Fewer young people are taking these apprenticeships up not because they are poor quality; on the contrary, it is the slashing of the non-levy budget, the charging of employers and the slow roll-out of level 2 standards which means that demand is not being met.
We hope that ministers who say that they are heavily committed to social mobility will now pick up the baton.
Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers