I AM excited to be the new chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). It is a great opportunity to represent nearly 800 high-quality provider members that are responsive and fleet of foot – from large independent corporates to small charities and a growing number of college members that support AELP’s vision.
My predecessor, Stewart Segal, has done a fantastic job in ensuring that many of our members’ concerns about the original apprenticeship reform proposals have been taken on board by the government. And we are now seeing the makings of a revised system, which should better serve the interests of employers and apprentices. It shouldn’t be forgotten that those concerns were mostly being articulated on behalf of the 350,000 employers that AELP members serve on a daily basis.
However, I arrive at a time when there are still major questions to be resolved about the levy. As we get ever closer to the April 2017 start, confusion reigns among many employers and providers as to how the levy system will work. Talk of top-ups and additional vouchers at a discount only serves to underline the need for a simplified system. AELP’s employer membership, which includes Sainsbury’s and Sage UK, is growing and AELP employer and provider members have a very important role to play in explaining to employers how they can take advantage of the increased funding that the apprenticeship programme will attract. Skills minister Nick Boles recently said that provider frustrations over having government contract growth requests turned down should become a thing of the past, but we don’t want one barrier to be replaced by another.
Quality apprenticeships first
Securing a sustainable apprenticeship funding solution for non-levy paying small and medium-sized enterprises must be a top priority, too. Smaller firms account for around 50 per cent of provision and we can’t expect them to feed off titbits of unused levy money. We already hear large employers talking about using up their levy and more. If extra government funding is needed to satisfy demand, then it must be forthcoming. We have a shared agenda with the government to see more apprenticeships at a higher level rather than a “pile ’em high” approach to meet the three million target; so concerted investment is needed.
Government finances are under huge pressure, but the skills funding letter made it clear that apprenticeships and traineeships comprise two of the three main funding priorities for skills, and we want to see continued growth in traineeships as a route for young people into an apprenticeship or sustained employment. As we continue to press this point, anyone delivering apprenticeships and traineeships should be a member of AELP because we are leading this agenda.
When I was a college principal, it never concerned me who “ate the lunch” as far as the sharing-out of funding was concerned. The sector’s aim should be to ensure high-quality delivery with excellent outcomes for students and businesses, whatever the type of provider, and we hope that ministers will keep their word about making no attempt to “fix the market” for apprenticeships.
Reducing the benefits bill
We also need an inspectorate that appreciates the benefits of work-based learning, understands the needs of employers in each sector and operates a framework that is appropriate for work-based learning with inspectors who understand it. Recent comments and statements give me concern that this isn’t the current position. Inspection of delivery, whoever is delivering to the learner, is important, but it has to be relevant and should facilitate high-quality provision.
Together, providers of all types can help businesses make a major impact on the productivity agenda. Another important component for this is making sure that the new Work and Health Programme succeeds for the long-term unemployed that it is designed to support. We know that there is pressure to control the cost of in-work benefits as much as reducing the bill for unemployment benefit, and AELP believes skills training is crucial to supporting people to come off both kinds of benefit.
For all the debate around the advantages and pitfalls of English devolution, it is the case that some city regions already recognise the need to see closer links between skills and employment provision and they are using the European Social Fund and co-commissioning opportunities to take this forward. Nevertheless, providers have concerns about how the devolution and area-review process is playing out, not least because no two areas seem to be the same in their approach. AELP is strengthening its links to regional provider networks in response and is making sure that the voice of independent providers and their customers is fully heard.
Overall, the country needs to see high-quality providers delivering apprenticeships and the devolved skills programmes, while government funding should ensure that good provision is supported and not wasting public money propping up weak provision.
Mark Dawe is the new chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers
CV: Mark Dawe
1989-1993 Chartered accountant, KPMG
1993-1999 Head of corporate services, Canterbury College
1999-2002 Director of education at eGovernment Solutions
2003-2005 Senior civil servant at the Department for Education and Skills
2005-2010 Principal of Oaklands College
2010-2015 Chief executive of OCR
2016 – present Chief executive of the AELP