What can the apprenticeship levy do for apprentices?

21 August 2015

The apprenticeship levy will be a game-changer, let’s be in no doubt about that. The trouble is that at this stage, with a consultation light on details and openly asking for ideas and solutions, it is not clear what impact the levy will have. On the plus side there are some good early signs: the announcement by the Prime Minister makes clear how much of a priority this is for the Government and at 0.5% the levy will bring in something like £1.5bn of new investment into training and skills. There is also a proper sense that employers need to be given more responsibility to define the skills they are looking for; so far so good.

But there’s no mention at all about what the apprenticeship quality is for the apprentice themselves. Every apprentice is as much an investor in their apprenticeship as the employer – they have lower wages and they commit time, energy and emotion in the learning and training. For the best employers this is easy because their interest is fully aligned with the apprentice’s interests – expansive education and training, with support and wide experience so that the apprentice performs better in their job and can go on within the company or industry to higher level roles and better pay/productivity. 

But let’s be clear about this, what is there to protect the longer term interests of the apprentice where an employer offers a narrower, perhaps more cynical experience which simply focuses on having someone doing a job on a low wage with some assessment alongside? Nothing, as far as I can see and we know that there are examples (happily in a minority) where this has happened and is probably still happening. Any system will be used properly as well as abused – our interest at NIACE is in how we can protect the interests of the apprentice and ensure that the outcomes of the programme are positive for the employer, for the economy as well as for the people who invest their own time and money in them.

The levy will provide a good debating arena in which we can discuss how best to do this. NIACE has proposed an Apprentice Charter which will enable the best employers to differentiate themselves, giving independent assurance to prospective apprentices, their parents and their advisors that the experience of being an apprentice, and the outcomes, will be positive. We’re aiming to develop the proposal this autumn in more detail with employers, apprentices and wider stakeholders in order to make better quality and wider access the positive routes to greater participation and hitting the 3 million target. We have a simple vision, that widening access and better quality will attract more employers and more people into the programme, making for a positive route to hitting the targets.

We need some help, though, because achieving the 3 million target and developing the details of the levy will take up a lot of policy time and the danger is that the apprentice experience will be lost. That would be an enormous pity as well as self-defeating. On GCSE results day I saw lots of Tweets saying ‘Missed your GCSE grades? Don’t worry come and do an apprenticeship with us’. I’d love a results day in the future to herald tweets saying ‘Got better grades than you imagined? Don’t worry, we have great employers who want the best achievers’.