MPs turn the screws on apprentice agency heads

4th May 2012 at 01:00
But chief executives tell select committee 9 in 10 are satisfied

Only one in 10 apprentices say they are dissatisfied with their courses, the heads of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) told MPs last week, as they responded to criticisms that the growth in the number of apprenticeships had damaged quality.

Speaking at the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, David Way, interim chief executive of the NAS, also revealed that the service's surveys showed that about two-thirds of apprenticeships went to staff already in employment, rather than creating new jobs.

The apprenticeship programme is facing scrutiny over how far it simply accredits existing knowledge rather than creating new skills - the same problems experienced by the Train to Gain scheme, which the expanded apprenticeship programme was intended to replace.

"The people who are least satisfied are people who are taking short- duration apprenticeships, which is why we are removing those," Mr Way told MPs. Only 87 of more than 1,000 providers are offering apprenticeships of less than 12 months, he said, and they make up about 8 per cent of the total number of places.

Mr Way said that some providers misunderstood apprenticeships: "The heart of (an apprenticeship) is about employment and skills development in the workplace. Some training providers saw apprenticeships as basically a training course, and as soon as you were capable of passing the various tests you were assessed and you got your apprenticeship. That's not our view."

The greatest satisfaction was registered for courses such as engineering and the least for those such as hairdressing, Mr Way said, although he added that dissatisfaction was sometimes caused by factors not related to training, such as pay.

He defended the focus on the volume of apprenticeships, saying that the number of starts had reached 457,200. "It was very clear that the blockage to the growth of apprenticeships was the lack of employer opportunities. So the biggest thing we've been able to bring to apprenticeships has been to expand the number of workplaces that are offering apprenticeships," he said.

The chief executives of both organisations rejected MPs' suggestion that there was a conflict of interest in the NAS being responsible both for "selling" apprenticeships to employers and for safeguarding their quality. "It would scare me if the NAS was only responsible for sales and someone else was responsible for production," said Geoff Russell, chief executive of the SFA. "[Mr Way is] accountable for both. What would be dangerous is if all he had to worry about was pushing the numbers and somebody else had to try and say, `Hold on, that's not of adequate quality.' "

Mr Russell said the main guarantee of quality in providers was ultimately market forces, and that employers would not accept substandard training. However, the committee did not appear to be impressed by this view, with Adrian Bailey, MP for West Bromwich West and chairman of the committee, saying: "It does seem to be quite a passive approach."

Mr Russell defended the pound;40 million contract with Morrisons and Elmfield Training, which netted vocational training provider Elmfield pound;12 million in profits and pound;3 million for Gerard Syddall, its main shareholder and chief executive. The supermarket chain had previously told the committee it would have trained its staff without government funding.

"Morrisons is saying they would carry out training for their employees; what they wouldn't do is carry out sufficient training and gain certification," Mr Russell said. "The bit we pay for - and we pay far, far less.than we do for the full training of a young apprentice coming into the workforce for the first time - represents an important part of the upskilling of the workforce, which is the single biggest strategic skills weakness the UK has."

But Mr Russell and Mr Way came under pressure from the committee over employer contributions to the cost of apprenticeships. MPs said that in most countries this was regulated and the contribution was made in cash. In England, the employer typically makes an in-kind contribution, and Mr Russell said this was not audited.

Indeed, Mr Way said many employers wanted the taxpayer to pay the wages of the apprentice as well as covering the cost of training. "The principal problem we get from employers who come through our website and on our phone lines is that they expect apprenticeships to be free," he said.

Mr Russell suggested problems with some providers were the "price to be paid" for record apprenticeship growth: "I don't think there's anything that we've done intentionally to say, `Let's pile them high and sell them cheap.' It was more a case of, you set a definition and quality standard but it isn't possible to always enforce it perfectly when you're also trying to grow the market."

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