Government slammed over failure to engage with employers over apprenticeship levy
Speakers at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) annual conference yesterday criticised the government for failing to address employers’ ongoing concerns with the apprenticeship levy.
Shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden (pictured) was among those who panned skills minister Anne Milton and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) over their delivery of the levy.
“Although the government has been warned for some time that they must do more to address the needs and concerns of providers and employers – or see their target for three million starts fail – they are not hitting the mark,” Marsden said.
Since April 2017, employers with an annual payroll of at least £3m have been required to pay a levy comprising 0.5 per cent of their salary bill. They can then recoup their contribution in training vouchers.
Employers have previously called on the government to abandon its target of delivering three million apprenticeship starts by 2020, something Marsden’s speech echoed.
“With the latest starts down 28 per cent on the previous year, the government is now a quarter of a million adrift from their [apprenticeships] target,” he said.
“Missing a target, however arbitrary, is never great, but more worrying are the lost opportunities for sectors to offer a lifeline to the young people whose futures are important in a rapidly changing world of work.”
The apprenticeships system has faced ongoing criticism since its April 2017 overhaul. A survey of AELP members revealed that only 11 per cent felt the reforms were going well and more than three quarters (77 per cent) thought employers did not understand or engage with the new system.
Speakers also criticised the government’s requirement for 20 per cent of an apprentice’s time to be spent in off-the-job training, which has been previously described as ‘impossible’ by employers.
“I don’t have a fundamental issue with 20 per cent off-the-job training, but the killer is that it has to be during working hours or time in lieu,” said Chris Baumann, director of Aktrion Group.
“There is a need to prevent apprenticeships being exploited, but I feel there are other ways of doing that; whether it’s ensuring they are paid at least the minimum wage, or finding a proactive way for that 20 per cent to not take place entirely during working hours.”
Marsden thought it was unlikely that Milton would row back on the measure, but added: “I don’t think that’s the main issue for employers and providers, so much as the continuing lack of clarity from the ESFA and government on what constitutes off-the-job training, particularly for small employers taking on apprentices for the first time.”
Caroline Bedford, head of trainee experience at Grant Thornton, praised the apprenticeship levy’s potential to address skills gaps, but argued that the ESFA sometimes overlooked the input employers could offer. “If you say apprenticeships are employer-led, then allow us the space to achieve this,” she said.
It had been speculated that the government would announce it was scrapping the 10 per cent training fee required from small businesses who wish to take on apprentices. Instead, Milton yesterday announced that large employers would be allowed to transfer up to 10 per cent of their apprenticeship levy funds to multiple businesses in an effort to make the offering more flexible.
Addressing the conference, Keith Smith, director of apprenticeships at the ESFA, acknowledged calls to work with employers. “It’s absolutely right that we continue to work with employers, and I know it can be difficult for employers that hear mixed messages about how to make the system work, so I am mindful that we need to stop losing these opportunities,” he said.
“I want to work on bringing greater certainty to the conditions you operate in – I can’t promise there are no policy changes on the way, but we can do more in terms of providing consistency.”