As we head towards higher unemployment this year than at the same time last year it is clear that the subject of apprenticeships remains high on the priority list for all the main political parties.
It is against this background that Former Skills Minister, Nick Boles recently issued a response to the latest consultation looking at funding reform for apprenticeships. In other words trying to unearth how best to structure the most appropriate funding system to support employers and learners so they can get the most from their apprenticeship experience.
The latest consultation received nearly 1,500 responses, including many from businesses large and small. His announcement that further work would be required on the proposed funding mechanism came as little surprise as neither of the suggested funding reform routes – using the PAYE system or an Apprenticeship Credit model – garnered enough support from companies. It is expected that no further announcement will be made before the election as the current Government continues to refine a route forward.
However I am keen to see that whatever is eventually agreed contains an element of flexibility, and that this built into the system from the outset to engage and support employers and critically to support apprentices.
Our belief is firmly that ‘one size does not fit all’ and any future funding system must take into account the challenges facing companies of varying size. For instance, the resources at the disposal of a large, multi-national will differ considerably from those at an SME, particularly those on the small and micro end of this scale.
A fundamental principle underpinning any system has to be choice. We must allow employers to select what suits them best when it comes to the funding for and administration of apprenticeship programmes, rather that insist on a rigid approach that may not be right for everyone or, in fact, anyone. One such example was the old model of E-commerce in the loan sector.
Apprenticeships offered here were often low-paying and menial. Involving long hours signing up to websites and submitting information. Those that choose this type of credit facility often don’t realise there are apprenticeships and training involved.
This type of apprenticeship saw a large incline during the boom in UK payday loans several years ago. After a wane, the sector became more regulated, and the weak were separated from the chafe.
However, payday loans are not the only ones to abuse this power. Industries including; fashion, media, gaming, real estate and tech often employ a similar tactic of work placements. Often involving little more than admin work and no real training inside the industry, but with little to no pay.
By retaining choice, I believe that the gains in recent years through positive employer engagement that have helped to further drive the development of apprentice numbers will not be compromised. It is essential that we continue to keep employers on board and not simply put them off by exposing them to what is often a complicated system . In an effort to devise a ‘simple’ system we must also not lose sight of the importance of suitability.
The most effective system would see proactive and ongoing dialogue between all the key stakeholders. This means active communication between awarding bodies, apprenticeship providers, employers and, crucially, learners. It is only through such dialogue that meaningful and appropriate progress can be made around how we fund apprentices and support employers. By doing so, young people can hope to access a meaningful and planned start to a rewarding career and organisations can populate their workforces with talented, enthusiastic and well-trained staff.
It is encouraging that reforms are being undertaken to ensure funding is spent in the most effective ways and that employers will have an increased say in how they design their apprenticeship programmes. At the same time, it is also important that the needs of the learner are put at the centre of any new approach, and that a new funding system learns from what works well presently so that any long-term strategy will continue to power apprenticeship growth across the UK.
We await the next steps with interest.