It’s difficult sometimes not to despair in my role, for all sorts of reasons, some of which I probably shouldn’t write about. Others are well worth writing about, though. Take the apprenticeship programme for instance, which has been subject to a maelstrom of policy and operational changes in the last couple of years.
Here’s a programme which most people instinctively support, which has political support from all sides, which the best employers use wisely to help them achieve success, which boosts the job and career prospects of thousands of people. A good apprenticeship programme ticks many political priorities: productivity, inclusive economic growth, regional inequalities, social mobility and lifelong learning.
And yet the programme really isn’t thriving. In June last year I argued that the government needed to abandon the 3 million starts target and address four key issues: “a fresh definition of what an apprenticeship is; improve access and progression; decide what role apprenticeships play in the wider industrial strategy; and have a long-term plan for the supply side to deliver the quality needed”. It still does.
The number of apprentice starts at that stage was very low, the number of young people accessing apprenticeships had dropped and there were fears about the apprenticeship levy not being spent. The numbers are starting to creep up and the levy is starting to be spent, but my four challenges have not been addressed, not nearly, and my worry is that the programme might never reach its potential.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the 3 million target has not helped, but it’s much more than that. We have the opportunity now to bring together the key stakeholders to have a constructive and informed discussion about where we are, what we want and how we build an apprenticeship programme for the future. Government, employers, unions, colleges, providers and apprentices all have a stake.
Sadly, there seems little prospect of any sensible debate like that. We have seen the odd skirmish over the role of degree apprenticeships, about the future levy policy, about too many new providers failing to deliver quality, about the slow development of new standards and their pricing and some inevitable finger-pointing about who is to blame. All are important, but they are unsolvable without a clear strategy.
Amid all of this are the colleges and providers trying to run their businesses, having to second-guess so much about the "market" in which they are operating. All of them have suffered from big drops in numbers, the lack of new standards, confusion about systems, adapting to new rules, lack of market knowledge and big delays in levy paying employers coming to market. With many colleges being the backbone of local apprenticeships for smaller employers, the restrictions on the non-levy contracts are seriously worrying, as they start to have to turn employers away. In short, apprenticeships have become a risky business to be in, as lack of stability undermines confidence.
Ministers are still keen to see colleges delivering more apprenticeships though, which is understandable. Colleges are well-placed to offer complete solutions to employers as well as great access routes and progression for apprentices. They can fit the programme within their wider and complementary offering, utilising facilities, equipment and expert staff from other programmes, supporting excellent off the job training.
But for colleges to deliver more, they will need confidence that there is a long-term commitment and more certainty to support the investment they want and need to make. Over many years of turbulent policy shifts, colleges have learnt that caution is often a good strategy when it comes to growth. After a decade of 30% real term cuts, we are in an era of very narrow margins and very low reserves, making that caution even more prudent.
So, for colleges to deliver more, the government needs to engage us in developing a proper strategy. A long-term strategy could focus on the industries, people and regions that will help to deliver a stronger and sustainable economy with better jobs and good pay. It could offer colleges and providers the confidence and the support to invest in the off-the-job training spaces, equipment and people who can deliver world-class quality. It could set meaningful targets for the impact that the programme should have. It could set a new, ambitious and exciting agenda for the future which all political parties would be able to endorse. Wouldn’t that would be nice?
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges