News Fall in apprenticeship starts could be down to quality provision focus, experts suggest

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Experts are treating the latest government figures on apprenticeship starts with grounds for optimism, despite a fall of 25 per cent in the number of starts at the beginning of 2018, with a renewed focus on ‘high quality’ provision.

According to government figures published on 29 March, 194,100 apprenticeship starts have so far been reported for the first two quarters of the 2017-18 academic year, compared to 258,800 starts reported during the same period a year earlier – a 25 per cent decrease.

The apprenticeship levy was introduced in April 2017, as part of a government plan to diversify routes into skilled roles and to reach three million apprenticeships by 2020.

All businesses with an annual payroll bill of more than £3m have since been required to pay 0.5 per cent of it in the form of an apprenticeship levy.

The latest figures revealed that 103,300 apprenticeship starts supported through levy funds have taken place since the levy’s introduction. 82,200 apprenticeship starts to have been funded directly by the levy were reported to have begun in Q1 and Q2 of 2017-18 out of a total 194,100 starts.

Jake Tween, head of apprenticeships at ILM, said the numbers looked “promising” despite the 25 per cent drop in overall starts, but added that businesses now needed to take proactive steps in making the system work.

“Although quarterly starts remain at a lower level than the previous year, promisingly, these numbers also reveal a rise in the number of people committed to starting apprenticeships in January,” he said.

“This follows the positive trend we’ve seen over the previous few months, which is largely down to the fact that businesses have needed time to understand the new levy and how to use it. This is perfectly understandable, but we can’t just sit back and wait for the figures to go up again.”

In a CIPD poll of more than 280 HR professionals published on 7 March, more than a third (32.75 per cent) attributed the falls in starts to the bureaucracy of the apprenticeship system.

The survey strongly suggested that the time it had taken employers to get to grips with the new processes under the levy was a key driver of the fall in starts, Lizzie Crowley, skills policy adviser at the CIPD, told People Management.

“It’s a very different environment for employers now, as they have to do a lot of work setting up and delivering apprenticeships that might have previously been done by a training provider,” she said.

“A lot of employers potentially didn’t have a programme in place before, and it is taking time to establish those.”

More than one in 10 poll respondents additionally cited a lack of available apprenticeship standards for certain occupations or sectors, and changes to off-the-job training requirements, which include a mandatory 20 per cent training provision.

Key figures from the government data showed that the numbers of recorded apprenticeship participation had varied according to the level of apprenticeship on offer.

The number of learners participating on level two courses declined from 341,400 to 269,400, and level three courses decreased from 372,000 to 323,200.

By contrast, learners participating on apprenticeship courses ranked at a level four and above increased to 69,300, compared to 55,100 reported at this time in 2016-17.

Apprenticeship participation for higher-level courses saw a rise of 34 per cent, from 44,400 in August-January 2016-17 to 59,600 in 2017-18.

Kathleen Henehan, policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation, described the numbers as an optimistic indicator that the government was “weeding out poor-quality provision”.

“While fewer training opportunities for young people is a big concern, the fact that the drop is concentrated among lower-level courses suggest that reforms are having the desired effect of driving up standards and weeding out poor-quality provision. It’s also encouraging to see the number of higher-level apprenticeships continue to grow,” she said.

“The recent reforms are still bedding in so it’s important that government sticks to its guns and presses on. These changes should be part of a wider drive to give high-quality vocational training a far bigger role in our post-16 education system.”

However, previous reports from People Management suggested that organisations may be working around the levy system by rebadging existing graduate-level schemes, or using their levy funds to send senior executives on business MBA courses.

In March, professional services giant Deloitte confirmed that it had transferred “just over 40 per cent” of its 2017 graduate intake into an accountancy/taxation professional level 7 apprenticeship scheme.

Crowley stressed that higher-level apprenticeships were not necessarily an indicator of the quality of training that occurs – but said the government had taken positive steps in ensuring that low-quality apprenticeships were not attractive prospects for employers, and must continue to build on this in the future.

“Some of the overall reforms the government has taken, such as the minimum duration and the off-the-job training rules, are making apprenticeships that are low-quality and low-level unattractive to employers, which is good, because they are not necessarily what we need for filing skills gaps in the UK,” she said.

“From a government perspective, this might put their three million target further out of reach – but there is a real need to ensure that whatever level of apprenticeship is being delivered, it is a quality training route for individuals. These figures have some silver linings, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

Apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton said in a statement: “We want people of all ages and backgrounds to get the excellent training they need to secure great jobs, and we want businesses to get the skills they need to grow. Our changes to the apprenticeship system aim to do just that.”

Milton said there had been “a big jump in higher-level apprenticeships” and that the “reforms have fundamentally changed what apprenticeships are, and the long-term opportunities they can provide”. She added that almost “60 per cent of people starting on the new apprenticeship standards are levy-supported”.

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