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Call for apprentice scheme revamp as training places fall



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The government has come under pressure to revamp its apprenticeship scheme after figures showed the number of training places slumped by a third over the last nine months.

In the first three terms of the 2017-18 academic year, the number of people starting an apprenticeship fell to 290,500, a 34% reduction on the 440,300 during the same nine-month period in the previous year. It is also nearly 25% down on the 384,500 apprenticeships started in the equivalent period in 2015-16.

The figures are a blow to the education secretary, Damian Hinds, who in his short time in office has emphasised the need for students to acquire workplace skills.

Opposition MPs and business bodies said much of the blame for the collapse in apprenticeships could be put on a £3bn apprenticeship levy brought in last April, which they said was overly bureaucratic and failed to accommodate the needs of businesses.

Gordon Marsden, the shadow minister for higher and further education, said the government was “ignoring the widespread concerns about apprenticeships” that had meant figures for new starts falling in every month since April 2017.

“Labour, businesses, and providers have called for an urgent reassessment of the process but ministers have buried their heads in the sand. Their refusal to review the levy is now causing major damage to the apprenticeship brand,” Marsden said.

Edwin Morgan, the director of policy at the Institute of Directors, said the figures “do not make for pleasant reading” and that, on the current trajectory, it would not be possible for the government to meet its target of 3m apprenticeship starts by 2020.

Businesses have complained that the levy is payable even when staff are away on secondment or attending course at suppliers. Firms pay the levy up front and claim it back when they employ apprentices.

Morgan said: “From the beginning, businesses have raised valid concerns around the complexity and rigidity of the system. Improving skills is a leading concern for our members. It’s now time for government to rethink the approach and work with businesses to turn the levy from a drag on apprenticeships into a system that delivers the right skills in the right places.”

The apprenticeships and skills minister, Anne Milton, admitted there was a decrease in the overall number of people starting apprenticeships but said there had been a 1,000% increase in the number of “higher-quality” apprenticeships.

She said: “There are also tens of thousands more people starting on higher-level apprenticeships, which are available in a range of cutting-edge industries, and more people achieving their apprenticeships.”

Businesses complained before the levy was introduced that it was cumbersome, especially for small and medium-sized firms, and was being implemented too quickly. Many only had a few months to put in place the scheme once ministers agreed on the finer details.

Karen Jones, the group HR director at the housebuilder Redrow, said critics should take into consideration that the results would be skewed by the surge in starts last April before the levy was introduced.

“However, this is not to say that barriers do not persist.,” she said. “Apprenticeship uptake among lower-income and disadvantaged backgrounds is still too low and reducing the financial burden for young people and their families by ensuring that they do not lose their child benefit would be a good way to better the situation.”


Source: The Guardian

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