Skip to main content

'With schools being forced to take on apprentices, the numbers don't add up'

The ideas behind forcing public sector bodies to employ apprentices are sound, but they don’t hold water when it comes to schools, writes one education policy expert

News article image

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but times are tough for school leaders now. The much-discussed 8 per cent budget cut by the end of this parliament is coming down the line (and more on top, if you’re in a school that has been overfunded compared to what a national formula would give you).  And it’s undoubtedly getting tougher to recruit teachers.

So a new requirement whereby some schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs) have to bear the cost of recruiting at least an extra six non-teaching staff a year – every year – could well be seen as an unhelpful additional ask. But that is what has been set out today, in a consultation by government around how 3 million more apprenticeships can be delivered over this parliament. 

Let’s unpick this a bit. What government has determined is that the public sector should – rightly – play a role in helping increase the number of apprenticeships. Given that the public sector employs around 16 per cent of all workers, that puts it on the hook for around 486,000 apprenticeships, or 97,000 per year. This is equivalent to 2.3 per cent of all public sector employment. So what the government has proposed is that eligible public sector bodies should recruit 2.3 per cent of their staff via apprenticeships, every year.

The issue comes around eligibility. In order to safeguard smaller institutions from the burden of this requirement, the government has proposed that it only apply to public sector bodies that employ at least 250 staff. Phew, thinks your average school leader. But wait! The consultation has news for you. If you’re a local authority school (technically a community school) where the council employs staff centrally, you’ll be caught as part of that council’s workforce. In practice, I think it’s likely that most councils will employ the apprentices themselves, rather than through the schools – and they’ll certainly bear the admin burden. But if you’re a school which employs its own staff, such as an academy, and you’re a very large secondary school or – crucially – part of an MAT with central employment, you will be included in this. 

As of last November, the pupil-adult ratio in maintained schools was 10:1. So on a quick back of the envelope calculation, this is unlikely to catch any institutions with fewer than 2,500 pupils. Unhelpfully, the Department for Education data only records large schools' size as being “more than 1,600” pupils, of which there are 202 (all are secondary or all-through schools). But it’s very possible that some schools with around 1,600 pupils, if in an area which is well funded and/or which has significant pupil need, may employ 250 staff. And when we get to MATs, then it suddenly becomes almost commonplace. The 2,500 pupils across a MAT, for example, could cover something as small as one secondary and two primaries, or a cluster of six primaries.

If you are caught by this (and it’s worth remembering that around two thirds of secondary academies are now in a MAT), then 2.3 per cent of staff means six apprentices being employed annually – as the consultation makes clear “the target will be a minimum 2.3 per cent starts each year based on the headcount of employees working for a body in England”.

Given an apprenticeship framework may be two years long, this would mean 12 apprentices being employed at any one time. And of course, there isn’t a teaching apprenticeship framework. So they’ll all have to be employed in non-teaching roles – for example, in business administration, or facilities management, or ICT or horticulture.

I estimate the cost of this to be around £80,000 to £100,000 annually in steady state for every 250 staff employed (ie, £40,000 to £50,000 for six apprentices per 250 staff, employed on a two-year framework, so 12 in total) – or in other words, about the cost of two much-needed teachers every year. This figure doesn’t include the wider administration costs of managing this team of apprentices, nor the wider costs associated with them in the organisation (ICT costs, desk space and so on). On top of this, if you’re a large MAT and your central salary bill is £3 million or more, then you’ll also have to pay the apprenticeship levy of 0.5 per cent of paybill – which you will be able to draw back to cover the costs of your apprentices' training, but which can’t be used to cover salary costs or administration costs.

The 3 million apprenticeship target is a worthy one. And it’s perhaps difficult to summon up sympathy for large academies and MATs, who ought above anyone else to have the scale to manage this, and when the common perception is that they often escape much of the bureaucracy around schools because of their freedoms. But it would be better if government could try and seek a balance between the needs to increase apprenticeship take-up and the need to avoid placing too much of a burden on some schools and groups of schools – so that they don’t end up distracting the very institutions which are meant to provide education and training in the first place.

If you’d like to respond to the consultation, you have until 4 March and the details are here

Jonathan Simons is head of education at the Policy Exchange thinktank and author of TES’s Whispers from Westminster column

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you