The latest batch of apprenticeship statistics released on Tuesday made for pleasing reading for skills and lifelong learning minister John Hayes. During 2010-11, there were 457,200 new apprenticeship starts - up 63.5 per cent from the previous 12 months.
But a report published the following day by the National Audit Office (NAO) served to put these figures in context, raising significant concerns about the quality and effectiveness of the apprenticeship programme.
In recent months, the rapid increase in the number of apprentices has been the key issue for the FE sector. In the blue corner, Mr Hayes has been keen to trumpet the success of the scheme, and has remained unrepentant about it being used by employers to upskill and reskill the workforce rather than to cut rising unemployment. In the red corner, a number of critics have said that too much of the expansion has been targeted at low- level qualifications for those who already work in sectors such as business administration and retail, and that it is therefore having a limited impact on the jobs market.
The NAO report gives both camps cause to feel vindicated. On the one hand, the report found that adult apprenticeships offer good value for money overall, producing an economic return of pound;18 for every pound;1 spent - albeit significantly less than the figure of pound;28 per pound;1 spent previously mooted by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). "Apprentices and inspectors are generally positive about the quality of apprenticeships", it adds, with 91 per cent of apprentices claiming to be satisfied with their training.
The conclusion that will perhaps please ministers the most is that the apprenticeship programme is "well coordinated and is better managed than a previous government programme, Train to Gain".
"I am really pleased that (the NAO) has recognised the progress we have made," Mr Hayes told TES. "Can there be anything else which delivers pound;18 for every pound;1 spent?"
But the report also raises the issue of "additionality": would the training and economic benefits provided through apprenticeships not have happened otherwise? This alludes to accusations that apprenticeship funding is being siphoned off by providers to train employees who would have been trained on the job anyway. The report argues that BIS has "not yet assessed the extent to which this is true".
The report raises further difficult questions for the government. While recognising the economic benefits of the scheme, the NAO argues that BIS could "improve value for money significantly by targeting resources on areas where the greatest economic returns can be achieved".
Half of the increase in apprentices created between 2006-07 and 2010-11 was among the over-25s, and most of this has been in just 10 occupations. Mr Hayes has responded that "it was ever thus" with apprenticeships. The NAO findings suggest that, under his stewardship, little appears to have been done to counter these trends.
But the NAO's more fundamental concerns centre on quality. In 2010-11, 19 per cent - 34,600 - of apprenticeships lasted less than six months. While apprenticeships for 16- to 18-year-olds will soon be required to run for at least a year, fears about the quality of short apprenticeships for adults have yet to be adequately addressed.
While Mr Hayes insists that there has been strong growth in higher-level apprentices, with a 75.5 per cent increase in advanced apprenticeship starts in 2010-11 and with higher apprentices up 47.8 per cent, the NAO believes that more must be done. "Most apprenticeships in England are at a lower level than those offered by other countries. For example, only 33 per cent of apprenticeships are at an advanced level (equivalent to two A levels), compared with 60 per cent in France," the report said.
Doubts also remain about the funding paid to providers, the report adds. They are "not based on sufficiently robust information on the cost of the training provision, and so the Skills Funding Agency and National Apprenticeship Service do not know the extent to which providers may be earning surpluses or incurring losses on some types of apprenticeship".
"The department (BIS) should set its sights higher in order to get better value from the pound;0.5 billion and rising now spent on adult apprenticeships each year," Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said. "It needs to target resources more effectively, confirm the training provided is in addition to what would have been provided without public support, and make sure that the funding system is informed by robust information on the cost of delivery."
While Mr Hayes argues that measures are already in place to tackle most of these concerns, his department has much work to do if it wants to convince the sceptics that they have been resolved for good.
Original headline: Rapid increase in apprenticeships offset by quality concerns