FEfocus Editorial - Apprentice deal might show the way

9th September 2011 at 01:00

In negotiations between Government and big business, we're accustomed to Government losing, like a naive holidaymaker among Vegas cardsharps.

Two reasons suggest themselves. Perhaps business attracts the sharpest, most ruthless minds, who outmanoeuvre public sector workers. Or perhaps, because politicians depend on donations from business, Government is not always really playing to win.

The great case study of this in our times is of course the banking industry, which lobbied for light regulation so they could bring on a crisis that everyone else would have to pay for.

So the announcement that red tape for businesses offering apprenticeships was to be cut (page 28) is not self-evidently a good thing. For one thing, we've been here many times before. What sounds like wasteful bureaucracy often turns out to be the unavoidable consequence of organising on a large scale. Big business, no stranger to pointless meetings and endless procedural complexities, should know this as well as anyone.

But there is also a question mark over whether bureaucracy is the problem that needs solving right now. Apprenticeships are growing at unprecedented rates, so there is little evidence that employers are being deterred unduly. Indeed, the main concern now is how to maintain quality, which does not cry out for less oversight.

As Gordon Marsden, shadow skills minister, said: "This is particularly important as more and more data comes to light which raises real questions about the status of some of the large number of short-term apprenticeships.

"This all means increased vigilance from ministers, officials and the Skills Funding Agency. They must ensure the status of apprenticeships as a key part of any growth policy is not undermined by the short-term pursuit of over inflated targets."

But there are some good reasons to think the decreasing vigilance in this particular case will not necessarily put quality at risk. The deal struck over apprenticeships at large companies with direct funding contracts is a surprisingly good one that reflects concessions on both sides and may even point the way for a better balance between Government and employer involvement in apprenticeships.

The exchange is simple: Government and the Skills Funding Agency give up a measure of control, and in return employers take on the risk. It saves FTSE 100 companies what must be the indignity of being treated like a mere training provider - leaving aside the companies' sense of self-importance, it was absurd to force their chief executives to sign off on their apprenticeship plans, when they have whole departments dedicated to training.

Such a revolutionary model of negotiation, in which both parties make concessions to pursue a mutual goal, rather than business issuing demands which Government is pressured to concede, is an interesting one and worthy of further consideration.

One of the biggest challenges remaining in apprenticeships, and in adult education generally, is to encourage a greater investment in training by employers. For all their protestations, their spending on training is dwarfed by the public sector, and in particular by public sector employers.

Rather too many concessions have been made in the past in return for rather too little, but the latest agreement may offer a promising way forward.

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