Bold steps are needed to ensure all apprenticeships are ladders of opportunity

8 October 2018

The ‘package of reforms to boost apprenticeships’ announced at the Conservative party conference last week, was greeted by some as mere tinkering around the edges – offering little more than an extension to the proportion of Levy funds that can be transferred between employers and the promise of consultation on how the Levy should operate after 2020.

Given the pace and scale of reform over the last few years however – and the temptation to try and secure a headline rather than make evidence based-changes that help the current system work better – we, at Learning and Work Institute, welcome government’s commitment to listen to business and apprentices before making further changes.

If the government is truly interested in bold ideas to help build the skilled workforce that business needs and ensure that every apprenticeship provides high quality training and support, then today’s report from Robert Halfon’s Education Select Committee isn’t a bad place to start.

With a focus on quality over quantity and the pursuit of social justice, it’s clear that the Committee has listened carefully to businesses, apprenticeship providers, local areas and apprentices themselves. Learning and Work Institute was pleased to give evidence to the Committee and delighted to see our research underpin many of its recommendations:

World-class quality: No one doubts that our best apprenticeships are world class – but as the report highlights, we also know that “too many apprentices are simply not getting the high-quality training they deserve”. At Learning and Work Institute, we have called for apprenticeship standards to be benchmarked against the best in the world. Taken together, the Committee’s recommendations to improve quality, should move us further towards this. We particularly welcome the call for apprentices to be given a much stronger voice in the system – surely a powerful lever in raising quality.

Ensuring apprenticeships pay: Undertaking a high-quality apprenticeship is an investment in the future. But we also need to ensure that they are affordable now. Our research shows that many employers don’t understand the rules around apprentice pay, leaving too many apprentices paid below the legal minimum. Add to this the need for action on the Government’s manifesto pledge on travel costs and the complexities of the benefit system, then it becomes clear that we need a wider strategy to make apprenticeships pay. The Committee’s report is clear that there should be no “financial disadvantage as a result of taking up an apprenticeship”, with a welcome set of recommendations around raising and enforcing minimum pay.

Addressing inequalities: Much of our apprenticeship research has focussed on tackling under-representation – among ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and care leavers. This is critical if we want to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to benefit from an apprenticeship and that employers have the widest talent pool to draw from. We strongly welcome the report’s call for a social justice fund to widen access to apprenticeships, alongside the use of incentive funding – perhaps modelled on our proposed ‘Apprentice Premium’ – to encourage greater recruitment of apprentices with these characteristics.

The forthcoming government consultation on the Levy post-2020 will be widely welcomed, particularly if – as expected – we see a move away from an arbitrary starts target towards the much more important issues of boosting quality and promoting opportunity.

As the Select Committee found, there is great “enthusiasm for the opportunities apprenticeships can offer and commitment to seizing them”. Apprenticeships work. But we need to make sure that they work better. We won’t achieve this by tearing up the system and starting again. But we do need to look, to listen and to learn from what’s currently happening – and to take bold steps where things aren’t working or where they can work even better. Only in doing this can we ensure that all apprenticeships truly are ladders of opportunity.

Dr Fiona Aldridge, Interim Director of Policy and Research at Learning and Work Institute