Skills minister Anne Milton has once again insisted that apprenticeship "quality is more important than quality", after new figures showed the steepest decline in starts yet.
According to the latest provisional data released this morning, there were 24,100 starts in April 2018. This down by two-thirds from the provisional figure for April 2017, which stood at more than 70,000. However this was the month which saw a spike in new starts ahead of the introduction of the levy.
The latest figures show a continuation of the trend of a steepening in the year-on-year decline in apprenticeship starts, compared to the drop of more than half in reported March.
Another month, another graph of apprenticeship statistics that will be ringing alarm bells at DfE. The pre-levy spike last April makes direct comparisons hard, but the overall pattern is still clear enough. pic.twitter.com/vX0oEwLlA2— Tom Richmond (@Tom_Richmond) July 12, 2018
However, given the sharp drop in apprenticeship starts reported in May 2017, the figures for May 2018, due to be published in August, should see more stability return to the statistics.
According to the government, quarterly figures provide a more robust comparison than monthly data. The data released today shows there were 290,500 apprenticeship starts reported so far for the first three quarters of 2017-18 , compared to 440,300 and 384,500 reported at this point in 2016/17 and 2015/16. That represents a drop of 34 per cent compared to last year, and 24.5 per cent compared to the year before.
The report goes on to say: "There have been 158,300 levy-supported starts so far, of which, 137,200 were reported in the first three quarters for 2017-18. There were 1,410,000 apprenticeship starts reported to April 2018 since May 2015 and 3,787,600 starts reported to April 2018 since May 2010."
Ms Milton said: “While the number of people starting apprenticeships has decreased overall, this is not unexpected. There is good news in these figures and I’m pleased to see the number of people starting on new, higher-quality apprenticeships has increased by almost 1,000 per cent this year.
“There are also tens of thousands more people starting on higher level apprenticeships, which are available in a range of cutting edge industries, and more people achieving their apprenticeships.
“Quality is more important than quantity, and our shake-up of the apprenticeship system has been all about making sure apprenticeships, developed by businesses themselves, give people the skills they need to get the career they want. The levy is an extremely important part of that and it is doing the job. Of note is that 47 per cent of apprenticeship starts have been supported by levy payers.”
Stephen Evans, chief executive at Learning and Work Institute said while the drop in starts compared to 2017 was unsurprising "it is of greater concern that starts are down 39 per cent when compared with the same period in 2016". "I am particularly concerned that there are 50,000 fewer apprenticeships for 16-24 year olds in the year so far compared to last year. This means a smaller proportion of this age group are doing apprenticeships, and we already compared poorly to other countries."
He added the levy and other reforms were "built on the right principles". "But we need changes, including looking at funding for apprentices for younger people, the introduction of an apprentice premium to widen access and tougher underpinning of quality. The government should publish more regular data on outcomes including apprentice’s long-term pay and job prospects. This should have at least as much attention as starts numbers.”
Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: "We can only repeat what we have said before. It’s time for the government to act and suspending the co-investment requirement for SMEs and young people is the right place to start."
John Cope, head of education and skills at CBI, said the drop in starts served as a reminder that the apprenticeship levy was not working as intended. "If we don’t significantly reform the levy quickly, companies will find it harder to invest in the quality apprenticeships and skills training they value so highly.
“The government has accepted the need for levy reform and is working with businesses to improve the system, but we do need to pick up the pace," he said, adding CBI would "continue to press the government for more flexibility in the levy, by permitting employers to ‘pool’ their funds and allowing more transfers through their supply chain, and will support the Institute for Apprenticeships to speed up the approval of apprenticeship standards.”
Kathleen Henehan, research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation, contrasts the growth in higher-level starts for those 24 and under with reductions in other areas.
The levy effect?
The system’s parts have been moving in different directions: growth in higher-level starts for those 24 and under but reductions everywhere else. Note the big drop (-63%) in lower-level starts taken up by older apprentices - a big effect of the levy and new rules on training? pic.twitter.com/waBaoOMMOS— Kathleen Henehan (@kathleenhenehan) July 12, 2018