Achieving GCSE-level qualifications in English and maths will not be made a compulsory component of apprenticeships, ministers have decided, rejecting a key recommendation from a major review by entrepreneur Doug Richard.
Instead, from 2014 apprentices will be expected only to "work towards" achieving either GCSEs or level 2 functional skills qualifications in the subjects.
"At this interim stage, however, apprentices will not need to have achieved level 2 in order to successfully complete their apprenticeship," says a consultation document published jointly by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education to mark National Apprenticeship Week, which ends today.
While insisting that "in future years we want to go further" in line with the recommendations made in the government-commissioned Richard Review of Apprenticeships, the document says that ministers recognise this "is a stretching goal and may take time to achieve, given the large numbers of individuals entering apprenticeships today without this level of attainment".
The response to the review also confirms that on-the-job training for employees who are already "experienced and competent" will no longer be classed as an apprenticeship.
While the number of apprenticeships being created has almost doubled since 2009-10 to more than 520,000 last year, the programme's critics have argued that many apprenticeships amount to little more than training for existing employees that would have been carried out anyway.
But the government document has accepted Mr Richard's recommendation that the "training and accreditation of existing workers that are already fully competent in their jobs" should be delivered separately from the apprenticeship programme.
The government also confirmed its intention to accept most of Mr Richard's recommendations. This will give employers greater control over the apprenticeship programme, allowing them to "strengthen the brand" by focusing on increasing "quality and rigour".
"For those already experienced and competent in their roles, apprenticeships will not be the right approach, unless they are advancing to a substantially higher skilled role," the government's response says. "Where people have existing skills they want recognised, we believe that they should still have the opportunity to test themselves against new competency standards via other non-apprenticeship routes."
The move was described as "bizarre" by Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association for Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). "We believe apprenticeships should also be appropriate for someone who wants to move up a level, or move sideways into a different job," he said.
The government refused to commit itself to the controversial proposal that employers should be funded for their portion of training costs through tax credits. The consultation document simply states that it will "explore options for addressing the principles articulated by Doug Richard", adding that the government will "recognise the greater needs of smaller businesses in employing apprentices".
This follows strong criticism of the proposal by the AELP. Mr Hoyle told TES that, if adopted, it could cause serious cash-flow issues for small businesses and potentially deter them from hiring apprentices. "Why would small and medium-sized enterprises want to put their hands in their pockets and pay for training if they only get it back at the end of the tax year?" he said. The extra paperwork involved would also prompt some businesses to "run like mad" away from the apprenticeship programme, Mr Hoyle added.
However, the government has accepted the broad thrust of the reforms proposed by Mr Richard, under which employers would be able to commission whatever training they chose from a list of approved suppliers but would only receive the full payment if apprentices completed an external assessment at the end of training.
The government has also accepted Mr Richard's recommendations that apprenticeships should be based on "recognised and meaningful industry standards" and that apprentices should be assessed in a "final holistic test" at the end of the course.
The consultation document further raises the question of whether apprentices should be given a grade or simply classed as passing or failing their course.
Business secretary Vince Cable said the reforms would "put employers in the driving seat so they can develop the workforce they need to grow their business".
Skills minister Matthew Hancock said: "We firmly agree with Doug Richard's assessment of the challenges and opportunities ahead for apprenticeships, and his recommendations to reform the programme in pursuit of rigour and responsiveness."
The consultation period ends on 22 May.
The government's key recommendations after the Richard review:
- Recognised and meaningful industry standards to be put at the heart of every apprenticeship.
- Every apprenticeship should be targeted at a skilled job, involving substantial new learning.
- Training and accreditation of "fully competent" existing workers should be delivered separately.
- What apprentices should know and be able to do at the end of their apprenticeship should be clearly set out.
- Apprenticeships will move to a "final holistic test that has the full confidence of employers".
- All apprentices to work towards a level 2 qualification in English and maths if they have not already achieved this.