The apprenticeship programme is in danger of leaving behind people with lower skills and those from disadvantaged communities, according to an influential parliamentary committee.
In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee states that the Department for Education (DfE) will not meet its target of 3 million apprenticeship starts by March 2020, and that its focus on higher-level apprenticeships and levy-paying employers increases the risk that minority groups, disadvantaged areas and smaller employers may miss out on the benefits that apprenticeships can bring.
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The committee says that it welcomes the programme’s greater focus on quality and the fact that more than half of apprenticeships are now started on employer-designed standards. However, some employers are using apprenticeship funds to pay for professional training or management courses that they would otherwise have paid for themselves, stresses the committee.
Public accounts committee chair Meg Hillier said: “The number of people starting apprenticeships is falling significantly short of government targets. The government will not meet its goal of 3 million starts by March 2020 and the department has underspent the programme’s budget by 20 per cent.
“Ultimately, the lack of progress has disrupted the direction of the programme. The way the programme is evolving is out of kilter with the department’s objectives: opportunities for people with lower skills are diminishing and apprenticeship starts in disadvantaged communities have fallen.
“What’s more, take-up from under-represented groups has been too low. We are supportive of the programme’s core objective to draw apprentices from a wider range of social and demographic group, but this is at complete odds with its unambitious targets.”
Ms Hillier said the committee was also concerned about the quality of training, with a third of apprentices being trained by providers that have been rated "inadequate" or "requires improvement" by Ofsted, and there currently not being enough assessors to meet the demand for end-of-apprenticeship assessments.
“The apprenticeships programme has laudable ambitions, but the department’s poor execution has created serious longer-term problems,” she said. “The Department for Education must get its reform of apprenticeships back on track, realigning the programme with its initial objectives so that as much of the population as possible can benefit from it.”
According to today’s report, the apprenticeship programme is now more heavily weighted towards higher-level apprenticeships, with around 20 per cent of the new standards available at level 2, while 40 per cent of the old-style frameworks were previously available at this level.
Pushing lower-level skills
The proportion of apprenticeship starts among people from disadvantaged areas has fallen, partly because of the growth in starts at level 3 and above, says the report. In 2017-18, just under 23 per cent of new apprentices were from the most deprived local authority areas, compared with the department’s target of 25 per cent.
“The department should assess whether there are enough level 2 standards to allow school leavers or those with fewer skills to easily access apprenticeships, and report back to us within six months on its assessment and any action it proposes to take to redress the balance,” the report recommends.
It also states that the department’s approach to widening participation among under-represented groups has been “inadequate”.
“One of the programme’s four main objectives is to draw apprentices from a wider range of social and demographic groups. However, the department’s targets for apprenticeship starts among the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) population, and among those with a learning difficulty, disability or health problem, are unambitious in that they are below the respective levels of these groups in the working-age population.
"There are no gender-based targets for the programme – we recommended that the department should set such targets in our 2018 report on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) skills but the department rejected our recommendation.”
The department should set more stretching diversity targets, the committee urges. According to the committee, the apprenticeship programme is also not supporting smaller employers well enough.
Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive Mark Dawe said the committee’s recommendations were "spot on". "Maybe now one of the most powerful all party committees has suggested these actions after the education committee’s recommendations last autumn, we might actually get something done.
"On the 'hard choices' that might need to be made with apprenticeship funding, the easiest choice would be to find more funding and while AELP thinks this can be done for higher and degree apprenticeships through existing budgets, we will need more levy or government funding to meet employer demand for level 5 and below across all employers."
Mr Dawe added: "In respect of good quality training, we only want providers who give apprentices a great experience – and employers who share in achieving that with their employees as well. Let’s just make sure we measure the right things in the right way."
Apprenticeships and skills minister, Anne Milton said: “We are making apprenticeships better. They are now longer, higher quality and have more off-the-job training - a point the PAC acknowledges.
“We are increasing the numbers of people with learning disabilities or from BAME backgrounds starting apprenticeships. We have projects aimed at helping people from disadvantaged areas to achieve an apprenticeship with all the benefits it provides."
Ms Milton added: “There is still work to be done, but we won’t sacrifice quality for quantity and I’m thrilled that the number of people starting on our new high-quality apprenticeships has risen by 79 per cent in the first half of 2018-19 compared to the same period last year.
“We are considering the PAC’s recommendations carefully and will respond in due course.”