`I don't think they can do it without cheating'
Of all the lofty promises made by politicians in the run-up to May's general election, few sounded as challenging as the Conservatives' pledge to create 3 million apprenticeship starts by the end of the current Parliament in 2020. To put this into context, 440,400 new apprenticeships were recorded in 2013-14; to hit the target, ministers will have to create 600,000 apprenticeship starts every year for the next five years.
"I don't know if they can achieve it without cheating," a senior figure in the sector told TES. "I have some confidence that they can get to 500,000-600,000 a year in about 10 years' time, but not over the next five years. They will either be forced to miss the target or they will have to cheat."
So, with the embarrassment and political fallout of potentially missing the target looming large on the horizon, could officials be tempted to bend the rules in their search for the mythical 3 million apprentices?
From statistical shortcuts to wily wheezes, TES explores eight reasons why the government's target may not be quite as unattainable as it sounds.
1 Not all apprentices are young
Although the term apprentice traditionally referred to a young person hired by a master craftsman to learn their trade, today this is by no means the norm. Of the 410,200 government-funded apprenticeship starts in 2013-14, only 112,600 related to under-18s. Ever since the programme was expanded back in 2010, concerns have been raised that the impressive rise in numbers includes people who are already employed, being given training that they would have received anyway, but which has now been labelled an "apprenticeship".
2 Getting a good start is crucial
It's worth noting that 3 million "apprenticeship starts" does not necessarily equate to 3 million qualified apprentices. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis), it simply means 3 million people beginning training - even if they leave the following day. The 410,000 apprenticeship starts in 2013-14 led to only 255,000 "achievements" (successful completions).
3 Buy one apprentice, get one free
If an individual progresses from a level 2 apprenticeship to a level 3 programme, they will have racked up two apprenticeship starts single-handedly. In some fields, apprentices could progress from level 2 to level 4 - three for the price of one.
4 Thanks to the levy, funding won't run dry
Chancellor George Osborne's announcement that large businesses across the country will have to pay a levy towards the apprenticeship programme is likely to generate badly needed cash to aid the expansion. With the Bis budget more stretched than ever, any extra pennies could go a long way towards making the 3 million target a more realistic prospect. As David Corke, director of education and skills policy at the Association of Colleges, puts it, the levy could be a "game changer".
5 Cheap labour for employers
Companies could exploit the apprenticeship programme to save money on their wage bills. The minimum wage for apprentices (at least for 16-18s and 19-plus learners in their first year of training) is currently pound;2.73 per hour, compared with pound;3.79 for regular employees under the age of 18 and pound;6.50 for those aged 21 and over. This, combined with the fact that employers don't have to keep apprentices on once their training is complete, has led several senior figures in the sector to voice concerns that employers could view apprenticeships as a way to hire cheap staff and then get rid of them as soon as possible afterwards. One expert told TES of companies taking on 30 apprentices and keeping only one. "I would call that cheap labour," he said.
6 What's in a name?
One relatively easy way of increasing the number of apprenticeships would be to relabel other types of provision so that they count towards the 3 million target. At the moment, traineeships are stand-alone qualifications for learners not yet ready for the rigours of an apprenticeship. But why not simply call them lower-level apprenticeships instead? This quick fix may become more likely as the 2020 deadline approaches.
7 The university of life
The definition of apprenticeships could even be broadened to encompass higher education provision. Bis has already confirmed that its new higher-level degree apprenticeships, which combine university-level study with work-based training, will count towards the 3 million target. Could more provision follow suit? One expert told TES that many universities had a large number of part-time learners sponsored by employers. "You could try and find a way to incentivise universities like that to start calling them apprenticeships," he suggested.
8 Compulsory participation
Making apprenticeships mandatory for young people out of work would be an effective, albeit highly controversial, means of boosting participation. And it is looking increasingly likely: earlier this month, the government's paymaster general Matt Hancock unveiled proposals to cut benefits for unemployed 18- to 21-year-olds who do not embark on an apprenticeship or traineeship. In addition, from next month companies bidding for government contracts worth pound;10 million or more will be forced to prove that apprentices make up a "reasonable proportion" of their workforce. No pressure.