It is only a few weeks since a detailed review of apprenticeships talked of the need to double the number finishing their course. Yet, two weeks later, training organisations faced significant reductions in (arguably) anticipated funding (FE Focus, September 9 and September 23).
It does seem that there was ambiguity in these contracts. The Learning and Skills Council says contractors should have known the income they would receive. The proportion of apprentices completing their qualifications rose from 32 per cent to 39 per cent, but the training organisations will be paid less per student as a result of this increased success. There is something odd in success bringing with it a reduced level of funding per student. Yet, it resembles the recent idea that over-recruitment to university courses would be penalised just as would under-recruitment. So being penalised for success is not an entirely new phenomenon. However, at least universities knew the deal before attempting to recruit students.
The complexity of funding through the LSC is partly responsible for the lack of clarity in what funding bodies would pay for training - successful or not, demanding that training organisations supervised students and incurred expenditure for the whole period or not.
The document Skills for Productivity, produced by the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Trade and Industry, declares the intention of working with employer organisations to deliver improvement that employers seek. One way of securing this is through the 250,000 young people completing apprenticeships. "We want many more successfully completing apprenticeships, which will remain their main work-based route to gain employment skills and enable them to progress on to higher education."
Clearly skills are desirable and the idea that apprenticeships should be regarded as a route that extends through to university is welcome. But if ministers want more students completing apprenticeships, they seem disinclined to pay for them. At the very least, the nature of contracts needs to change. The confusion over success in apprenticeships, though, is small beer in comparison to the lack of certainty within Skills for Productivity as a whole.
First, publicly-funded training in skills is to meet the needs of employers. Well, a central steer is of limited help and will not satisfy all employers. Such satisfaction can only be achieved through links between individual employers and FE colleges.
Second, "most employers are investing heavily in skills". Obviously, employers do invest in some workers, usually those regarded as vital to the business and who have already received higher amounts of education. Such employees are still likely to be younger white males and without disability. If employers were really so interested in investing more broadly in skills, it would be reasonable to expect them to pay for more training at levels 2 and 3.
Third, if employers were sufficiently immersed in training, it is questionable whether the Government would, as Skills for Productivity states, be "making a commitment to deliver publicly-funded skills training". It would be good to see more commitment to level 3 qualifications, because this level allows individuals to make a more significant contribution and increase their earnings potential.
Fourth, and most fundamentally, the whole argument of Skills for Productivity is dramatically flawed. It says: "People with the right skills are crucial to the success and competitiveness of any business and of Britain's economy. So employers need to be in the driving seat when it comes to designing and delivering training". This is surely wrong-headed.
If employers are to be this involved in training, they will probably be little involved in the production of goods and services.
Overall, there are misunderstandings with regard to education and skills at post-compulsory level. Unfortunately, whether in terms of basic funding of courses or more advanced policy planning, the contribution of the Government appears to add additional layers of confusion.
Graham Fowler is an FE researcher, writer and consultant