Target of 3m apprentices ‘unattainable’, says study

12th August 2016 at 01:00
Government must make apprenticeships appealing to small businesses, experts warn

The government’s target of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 will be “unattainable” unless it takes drastic action to make the programme more appealing to employers, a new report claims.

Research by policy consultancy SQW concludes that current reforms, including the creation of a new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, is unlikely to address the reasons for the “endemically low level of apprenticeship adoption by employers”.

The report appears to be backed up by the latest official statistics, published last month, which revealed that the number of apprenticeship starts in the third quarter of 2015-16 was 112,900. This was almost 2,000 fewer than in the same period a year earlier – and 37,000 fewer than the average needed over the next five years for the government to hit its much-vaunted 3 million goal (see graph, right).

In the foreword to the report, Bumpy Road Ahead for English Apprenticeships? (see, David Crichton-Miller, chief executive of SQW Group, argues that the apprenticeship system “will remain insufficiently appealing to small businesses, who are crucial to England reaching its apprenticeship targets, and that the target will therefore remain unattainable on this trajectory”.

Levy ‘top priority’

In an exclusive interview with TES last week, Robert Halfon, the new apprenticeships and skills minister, described the successful introduction of the levy in April 2017 as the “single most important” aspect of his new role (

Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week in March, the government hailed the “dramatic growth in apprenticeships” on its watch. But the SQW analysis calls this into question.

Sector leaders also expressed concerns about the programme. Paul Warner, policy director at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), said he shared SQW’s concerns about replacing apprenticeship frameworks with new standards at the same time as implementing other changes to the programme. He was also concerned about the need to keep smaller businesses engaged.

“AELP has written to the new ministerial team calling for a pause on the standards process and continued growth under existing frameworks to hit the 3 million target,” he said.

“While a high level of co-investment by the government might prevent some [small- and medium-sized enterprises’] disengagement, this component of the reforms should be kept under review for the next two years, leaving open the option of the SME cash contribution being phased out completely.”

Kirstie Donnelly, the managing director of City and Guilds, said that while the awarding body “wholeheartedly agrees” with the apprenticeship reforms, it is vital to “focus on embedding a system that focuses on quality rather than numbers”.

She added that more work still needed to be done to ensure that SMEs are more easily able to access the new system and are aware of the benefits of engaging with it.

‘Lack of confidence’

Matt Garvey, managing director of West Berkshire Training Consortium, said that a “drip-feed” of information about how the levy will operate had adversely affected “confidence and momentum” behind the apprenticeship programme. Guidance on how the levy will operate was due to be published today.

Many employers had also underestimated how much it costs to train an apprentice, he added, with rumours about delays to the introduction of the levy causing uncertainty for employers and providers alike.

“If you add in the ambiguity around funding rules and ignorance of what an apprentice costs, there is a toxic mix that is not going to help [increase apprentice numbers],” Mr Garvey said.

“Conversations should have been had a long time ago, but there’s been lack of concrete information. The 3 million target was put there long before the concept of Brexit. Leaving [the European Union] is going to be a big brake on employment.”

Pippa Morgan, the CBI’s head of education and skills, stressed that the priority for employers was “to encourage quality apprenticeships rather than a quantity target”.

“By not recognising the breadth of great training that is currently being delivered, the levy runs the risk of unintended consequences,” she said. “One in six firms has indicated that it will have to cut apprenticeship programmes to meet costs, in the latest CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey.”

A government spokeswoman said that apprenticeships were “on the up”, with starts having increased by 80 per cent since 2009-10.

“We are encouraging both large and small employers in all sectors to consider apprenticeships – working with them to begin or expand their programmes,” she added. “And, as a result, we have seen new apprenticeships emerge in a range of sectors from fashion to law and banking.”

A separate report published yesterday concludes that, with appropriate governments support and incentives, the small business sector in England has the potential to double the number of apprentices it hires to more than 2 million.

Of the firms surveyed by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), 24 per cent already employed an apprentice, with the same proportion saying they would consider taking one on in the future.

‘Quality, not quantity’

In contrast to the conclusions of the SQW report, Lindsay McCurdy, chief executive of training consultancy Apprenticeships4England (pictured, right), is confident that the 3 million apprentice starts target will be reached.

“But the majority of these apprenticeships will be [for] people who were already employed by their employer, without any job progression,” she said.

“We need to go back to the start and look at not just employer engagement but student engagement at school. Is the government number-driven or does it want to give businesses the apprenticeships they want, and of the quality and standard required?

“We must also look at completions, as, out of the 3 million starts, 20 to 30 per cent will not complete the apprenticeship.”

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