There are lots of strongly held views about the current state of the apprenticeship programme in England. The range is wide, with some setting out how disastrous the reforms have been and others applauding the success despite the collapse in starts. I have my own views, of course, but more than anything I think there needs to be more analysis of the changes by sector, by age, by level and by geography before we can get a full prognosis. Any overall assessment will miss the wide variations which in part help explain why views differ so greatly about how things are going at the moment.
What is clear, though, is that the three million target has not been helpful. I have never been a fan because it measures the wrong thing, had no evidence base behind it and was always likely to lead to perverse behaviours. Grudgingly, I can concede that it has helped attract attention to the programme from politicians and employers and in some way from the wider public. It amazes me that it has helped reach mainstream (rather than just the trade and specialist) media in a way that the Blair government’s 50 per cent into HE did. But it has, and I should probably be more pleased about that than I am.
So it was nice to be asked this week for my thinking on what apprenticeship policy should be after 2020. I like questions like that, particularly when you think there is a modest chance that the answer might actually help influence what happens, even if in a small way. What was slightly depressing though was that the question itself revealed the lack of an over-arching vision and strategy for post 16 education, training and skills. It’s actually quite incredible that the Government has no such vision, despite being active in policy and reforms in apprenticeships, T levels, higher education, institutes of technology, qualifications, social mobility and devolution.
Policy and funding
So the starting point of my answer was to try to show how critical it is that we join up the thinking behind policy and funding across the whole post-16 sector. I defy anyone to provide a coherent and credible strategic framework which makes sense of all of the reforms, shows how they will work and sets out what the outcomes will be. I spend a lot of my days trying to explain it to college governing bodies so I know that it really is impossible to knit it together at local level.
The easiest way to highlight the lack of a vision is to compare the uneven, incoherent and stilted choices open to a 19-year-old. Around 60 per cent of the cohort at this age will have achieved a level 3 qualification, so many progress onto a three year residential Bachelor’s degree, building up debt of £50k+ on tuition fees and maintenance support. Smaller numbers will access degree apprenticeships and be debt free and have earned while they learned. That’s a big differential between two routes and I have no idea why we think that is right. Another small number might go into work with no training, probably only to realise at some point that higher education of some kind might actually offer a good return on investment. By age 30, around 49 per cent will have achieved higher education qualifications.
All well and good for many of those at level 3, but we know that about 40 per cent of 19 year olds have achieved below that level. The options they face are much less clear and the potential investment in them is almost non-existent. That might be why so few of that 40 per cent progress onto further learning; by age 25 we know that the vast majority will not have achieved any higher qualifications, not even level 3. At age 25 their entitlement to free level 3 tuition disappears. For many people who have not progressed beyond level 1 or level 2 by 19, their chances of personal social mobility are seriously hampered.
So it’s good that we have the government’s Post 18 Review of Education and Funding to help make it fairer. And it’s why we have proposed in our own consultation document that a new technical professional education route is needed post-18. It needs to be both an alternative option for those who have achieved Level 3 at that age, as well as a realistic option for those who haven’t but in later life (a year or 10 or 20 or 30 or even 40 years later) want to improve their prospects through training and education. Taking on our vision would do so much to achieve fairness in our society through offering flexibility in when and how people can benefit from the investment which at the moment misses half of the population. I hope that the review panel is listening.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges