2017: The Year in apprenticeships (part one)

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Across two parts, we will explore the big themes and issues that emerged in 2017 in the apprenticeship world and also attempt some crystal ball gazing for 2018.

If Spring 2017 was the big bang event for the new apprenticeship system, with the inauguration of both the Levy and the Institute for Apprenticeships, then the rest of the year saw the evolution of a new universe. As the pieces settled, some big themes emerged and opinion in the apprenticeship world was (at times) sharply divided.

The 20% off the job training rule

This has been an ongoing debate, with critics arguing primarily about the arbitrary, inflexible nature of this funding rule and the fact that it is potentially off-putting to SMEs who can’t afford the loss of productivity.With functional skills not eligible to form part of the 20% off the job training, it is also seen as prejudicial to the chances of more disadvantaged applicants to apprenticeship programmes. And, with a precedent for other types of professional training sponsored by the employer occurring outside of working hours, there is a question mark over whether this day-release equivalence isn’t somewhat indulging of apprentices.Those in favour of the rule, however, believe that the ring-fencing of time for learning off the job is all part of safeguarding the quality of apprenticeships.

Indeed, effective on and off the job training over an extended period of time (at least 12 months) is a key feature of a high-quality apprenticeship according to the IoA’s Quality Statement.What’s more, evidence from other countries with gold-standard apprenticeship systems (such as Germany) shows that ‘dual training’ is an essential and desirable part of the system. Off-the-job training should help apprentices develop higher order skills to help them with communication, problem-solving and analysis, for example.Anecdotally, many employers also find that apprentices gain fresh perspectives from their off-the-job training – perhaps through examples and models from other companies or industries that they are then able to bring back into the business.

The drop-off in new starts

The big news in parts of the FE press in October was the drop-off in new apprenticeship starts (a 61% drop year-on-year between the 1 May to 31 July 2017 – the first quarter after the levy was introduced). It was trumpeted by some as evidence that the government’s strategy was in trouble, while being simultaneously downplayed by the new skills minister, Anne Milton, as an expected bump in the road. Despite the alarmist nature of some of the reporting, the latter seems almost certainly to be closer to the truth.There had been a 47% year-on-year increase in the previous quarter, suggesting a rush by employers to recruit apprentices before the new system was introduced. And, subsequently, research conducted by the CBI and Pertemps Network Group Employment shows that 63% of businesses plan to reconfigure their existing training into apprenticeships as a response to the apprenticeship levy, and 46% plan to grow the number of apprenticeship roles within their business.

We will have to see whether the firm data in 2018 confirms or refutes this for sure. With non-levy businesses also being moved onto the Digital Apprenticeship Service it also remains to be seen whether this will have any effect on new starts in 2018.

Funding delays for non-levy apprenticeships

The procurement process for training providers wishing to access funding for apprenticeship provision for non-levy paying employers has been a long and difficult one, with the government hitting the pause button not once but twice (in April and in November) due to the large number of tenders received. (In the interim, existing contracts held by current providers were extended until the end of December 2017).The situation was further exacerbated by last-minute changes in terms of the data providers were expected to provide, leaving bidders scrambling to update their documentation just a week before the submission deadline, and pushing some high-quality providers under the minimum contracting threshold.The procurement process finally came to an end on the 7th of December, but sadly not to everyone’s satisfaction. At the time of writing, the ESFA had just extended the standard 10-day standstill period by a further 10 days to accommodate the volume of complaints from bidders. (Even some of the ‘winners’ found themselves only allocated a small portion of the funding requested). Of all the teething problems the new system has encountered, this has arguably been one of the biggest, and we certainly won’t have heard the last of it.

Come back next week as we continue to explore the key issues in the 2017 apprenticeship world and look to the year ahead in Part two of our apprenticeship retrospective.