Length matters as apprenticeships face extension

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Critics fear 12-month minimum could leave providers out of pocket

More than half of all under-19 apprenticeships will have to be extended following the announcement by skills minister John Hayes that all the qualifications must last a minimum of 12 months, the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) has said.

NAS said that last year 51.8 per cent of apprenticeships for 16 to 18- year-olds were completed in less than 12 months. This means that the change, due to be introduced from August this year, is likely to require the extension of 65,000 apprenticeships each year, raising concerns among providers over funding.

Mr Hayes told the House of Commons he did not believe that the length of the programme inevitably determined the quality of the course, but that he wanted to introduce the rule to send a message about the government's commitment to apprenticeship quality.

"By setting down a marker about the minimum length of an apprenticeship, we will drive up quality," he said. "We will reassure those who are genuinely committed to the apprenticeship programme, but have doubts about the tension between quality and quantity, that we are serious about standards. That matters."

But NAS said it was not yet ready to announce what effect the changes would have on the content of apprenticeship frameworks, saying it had yet to conclude its review, being carried out with the Skills Funding Agency.

"The suggested measures are to enhance the quality and success of apprenticeship frameworks and the impact of the review will be to deliver strong benefits for apprentices, employers and the wider economy," an NAS spokeswoman said.

NAS has indicated that some courses, such as the De Vere hotel group's 12- week hospitality training, would be reclassified as pre-apprenticeship training.

Paul Warner, director of employment and skills at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said it was already apparent that at least a small number of apprenticeship frameworks would need to be rewritten, mostly in the service sector and retail. But the NAS review may throw up more. "There are unanswered questions at the moment," he said. "There may only be a couple of frameworks that actually look as though they would be delivered in well under a year."

Longer apprenticeships will cost providers more by increasing the number of assessment visits they need to undertake, raising questions among providers about funding and meeting the government's ambitions for record numbers of apprentices.

"They're looking to introduce it in August - are they saying it will apply to any new frameworks or to all new starts, or will it apply retroactively?" Mr Warner asked. "It has big implications for funding. And it could affect the raising of the participation age; will the system be able to deliver the number of places needed? It's already an issue."

The change could also mean some young apprentices are shortchanged, Mr Warner said. Employers and training providers will have to explain to apprentices who may have completed the course requirements that they still have to wait months to move from apprentice pay to a full wage. "We need to look at how this affects the motivation of young people in the workplace," he added.

The government has been pressured into taking action after presiding over a growing number of short apprenticeships, said shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden. And he queried why the measure was limited to under-19s. "This announcement does nothing immediately to address the concerns about the quality and progression of apprenticeships for those in the crucial age range between 19 and 24," he said.

Mr Hayes said that he had asked NAS to examine the implications of requiring all apprenticeships to have a minimum duration, but that he had asked it to bear in mind the prior experience older apprentices typically had, which enabled them to complete apprenticeship requirements more quickly.

Training providers are likely to resist an across-the-board 12-month requirement because extending the measure to other age groups would hamper legitimate work with older employees. "We wouldn't be in favour of it for all age groups," said Mr Warner.

One MP even spoke up in defence of some of the shortest apprenticeships. Richard Harrington, the Conservative MP for Watford, said the training provider SQI offers 10-week apprenticeships followed by a work placement of the same length. "They lead to 85 per cent of those taking part being in permanent employment. I do not think that the length of an apprenticeship is everything," he said.

Original headline: Length matters as half of apprenticeships face extension

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