Quality and access remain crucial for apprenticeships

2 October 2015

During party conference season, you tend to get an idea of what the big issues are right now – and when it comes to education and skills, everyone’s talking about apprenticeships.

How many is the right number? How do we protect quality? What can we do about access? How on earth will the Apprenticeship Levy work?

The Apprenticeship Levy is one of the biggest education funding changes we have ever seen, a huge political risk, and a massive Whitehall IT project.

Although consultation on the Levy closes today, it’s clear that some questions have already been answered. The Levy will see ‘large’ employers (probably those with over 250 employees), paying a percentage (probably around 0.5%) of their payroll costs to the government, to be spent on apprenticeship creation. It’s not yet clear how the system will work for public sector employers, where the Ministry of Defence or National Health Service could face enormous bills.

Employers will then be able to access these funds by drawing down Digital Apprenticeship Vouchers, to be spent procuring training from registered providers. In our response to the consultation, NIACE has suggested that these vouchers be accessible to employers of all sizes, using funds from the Levy to support small employers with the costs of taking on an apprentice. We’ve also suggested that the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland ring-fence the money they receive from the Levy to boost funding for vocational education in the devolved nations.

But crucially, we propose that the government sets a real focus on quality and access for apprenticeships, ring-fencing less than 1% of Levy income to create a Quality and Access Fund. We want to see this money spent on a voluntary Apprentice Charter which celebrates the very best apprentice employers, as well as supporting activities to diversify the apprentice sector.

Over £1bn was spent on widening access in higher education in 2013-14, and yet in the apprentice sector, there isn’t even accessible data on outcomes for apprentices, nor  the number of starts of individuals generally underrepresented in the Labour Market – particularly care leavers and carers. If we’re serious about seeing 3 million apprentices by 2020, we’ve got to answer the access question.

There are other parallels to be drawn between the two sectors – for a long time, we’ve been talking about the case for complaints redress in further education, and for the same length of time, BIS has insisted that the Skills Funding Agency should be responsible for hearing complaints by apprentices, as their funder. Now that the sector will essentially be funding their own apprenticeships, there is a clear case that apprentices should have access to an independent complaints authority, such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which has just widened its remit to include HE provision in colleges.

The implementation of the Apprenticeship Levy could see more money than ever invested in apprenticeships, and businesses taking a keen interest in ensuring that the effective tax on their payroll is put to good use. But questions remain to be answered about whether the government is serious about apprenticeships, or whether this is simply a numbers game.