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Two reports have been released this week stating that the new apprenticeship scheme coming into force is not up to scratch, with the transition from education into work something the government is continuing to struggle with and solve. Even after the recent economic recovery, 16–24-year-olds remain nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than adults.

With the apprenticeship levy (which requires all employers operating in the UK with a pay bill over £3m to invest in apprenticeships) coming into force on 6th April 2017 and the promise to get three million more people starting apprenticeships by 2020 in the Conservative manifesto, apprenticeships are currently being prioritised as the top technical route into work. 

In 2012, to ensure that the quantity of Apprenticeships did not come about at the expense of their quality, Doug Richard, the entrepreneur, was commissioned to produce a report on how to ensure Apprenticeships could be high quality.

However, while well intentioned, the roll out has demonstrated a number of weaknesses in the apprenticeship reforms and the wider strategy that threaten to (and, in some cases, have already begun to) undermine its principles.

Prioritising quantity over quality

In its report Policy Exchange has warned that £500m will be wasted every year up to 2020 on apprenticeships that don't lead to a truly skilled job. With quantity being prioritised, the rolling out of these apprentices have not adhered to a standard definition of apprenticeships or the high

expectation of quality. For example, the think tank has noted that they insufficiently stretch students to meet the demands of the profession and the level of qualification within it, they often do not represent a skilled occupation or are not closely aligned or integrated with professional body standards, some do not require substantial and sustained training, and others do not include the right level of new responsibilities to ensure the apprentice grows in a new job or role. 

They suggest that the target of 3 million apprenticeship starts, although a manifesto commitment, is unhelpful as being the primary focus of the programme and that they should set a new primary goal for the programme on ensuring that all new apprenticeships are of high quality, even at the expense of volume. 

If they fail to do this, they may find that apprenticeships in 2020 are in the same position as Labour’s Train to Gain a decade earlier; “a programme consumed with numbers, that lost sight of quality, that sought to bring in all forms of training within its orbit, and did not consistently deliver the transformative outcomes which were required.”

Woman sitting with others in a cafe writing in a notebook

A pre-apprenticeship programme for 16-18-year-olds

The Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) report looks specifically at 16-18-year-olds taking level 2 apprenticeships and suggests that this group of learners are not being adequately prepared either for further study or for the jobs market.

They found that those who leave full-time education with a level 2 qualification have an employment rate of 70% – almost 20 percentage points lower than those of their peers who leave full-time education with a level 3 qualification or higher education. In turn, they find it harder to progress onto higher qualifications, with only 39% of students pursuing a level 2 qualification at age 17 moving on to a level 3 course. Because of this, young people were found to be stuck in a cycle of low-level qualifications with a quarter of those pursuing a level 2 qualification at age 17 still working towards a qualification of the same level a year later, and 8% having moved down a level.

Level 2 apprenticeships were seen to be very job specific, not including much off-the-job training, only lasting one year, and – from next year – not required to include a recognised qualification. In this way they are falling short of the recommendations of the recent Sainsbury review of technical education. 

Their proposed solution was a pre-apprenticeship programme addressing 16- to 18-year-olds' "distinct needs”. This programme would last two years, have a common core of knowledge (including English and maths), would contain more ‘off the job’ training and result in a single, nationally-recognised certificate linked to a broad occupational pathway.

After completing the level 2 programme, there would be help to move them onto a level 3 apprenticeship at the age of 18 or 19.

This report comes at a time when universities have been awarded £4.5m to develop 5,200 degree level apprenticeships from September.

Are you an apprentice? Are you looking into doing an apprenticeship? Do you employ apprenticeships? Have you been affected by the new changes? Let us know about your experience.