Calling out dodgy apprenticeships shouldn’t detract from declines in adult learning

22 October 2015

Today’s Ofsted report ‘Apprenticeships: developing skills for future prosperity‘ raises some clear and important points for all of us to consider; protecting the apprenticeship brand, improving the quality of the earning and learning experience and ensuring focussing on quantity does not sacrifice quality. NIACE has long been making the point that apprenticeships need to be accessible, quality experiences with genuine outcomes for learners. 

We have known for a long time, for instance, that a huge proportion of ‘new’ apprenticeship starts are in fact the transfer of existing employees onto apprenticeship frameworks. Research published by BIS back in December 2014 suggested that nine in ten apprentices aged 25 and over were already an employee at the company when they started an apprenticeship. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them this! And the fact that only 6% of 16-18 year olds take on apprenticeships is a real problem that must be addressed swiftly. Ensuring schools are delivering comprehensive advice and guidance about available options is crucial, but the level and quality of apprenticeships also needs to improve, and it’s clear that the three million target alone won’t achieve this. 

At NIACE, we’ve been working with employers and apprentices to develop the Apprentice Charter, a quality mark that will identify and celebrate the really amazing practice that is out there. It will be led and designed by apprentices and employers themselves, and focus not just on quality but on access. It’s no great surprise to read in Ofsted’s report that apprenticeships in those sectors which Ofsted identifies as examples of good quality for young people are those where women continue to be underrepresented – construction, motor vehicle and engineering. 

We willl continue to work to ensure that all apprenticeships represent new, high quality opportunities for all, with a particular focus on developing opportunities for young people – but there is another issue here that we need to talk about. Across the education system we are seeing a huge decline in the numbers of adults participating in education.

Whether it’s the huge drop in part-time (predominantly mature) higher education students following the rise in tuition fees, the 30% drop in adults studying at level 3 and 4 following the introduction of 24+ advanced learning loans, or the one million adult learners lost in the last 5 years – 300,000 in the last year alone.

The reality is, the only place we are seeing an increase in adult participation is through apprenticeships. 

I remain concerned that current employer training budgets will be diverted to absorb the costs of the Apprenticeship Levy or mandatory cash contributions in some businesses. Clearly, there is a need to focus on boosting apprenticeship starts from young people, but with around £414million lost from the adult skills budget in the past year alone with even further cuts expected coming from the Spending Review next month, then we still need solutions for adult training.

Some of these solutions, of course, are about funding. But there are also important discussions to have about how we re-design the system so, like in other European countries, there are clear occupational pathways from entry to Level 5+ and part time study is more accessible and attractive than it ever has been before.

The crux of all these problems is this:

By 2022 two million more jobs will require higher-level skills, and even now, one in 5 vacancies are ‘skills shortage’ vacancies. We can’t afford not to meet that challenge, and doing so will require high-quality apprenticeships for young people, but also a clear set of pathways and opportunity for adults through education and training. 

Toni Pearce is head of employment and skills at NIACE.