The latest official figures on quarterly apprenticeship starts (August to October 2017) may be disappointing reading for government, in view of David Cameron’s 2016 General Election promise to create an additional three million by 2020, but as posts on this site have emphasized, apprenticeships have never benefited many young people, never provided an alternative pathway to university and haven’t really been wanted by the majority of employers – who have continued to oppose a compulsory levy on larger companies.
But as the research Another great training robbery has argued, rather than just reflecting shortcomings in the way they have been designed or funded, the main drawbacks with apprenticeships are consequence of longer term structural and historical difficulties in the British economy and the political consensus that has supported it. Without understanding this, it’s of limited value comparing the failure of UK apprenticeships with ‘successful’ German ones and it’s certainly not acceptable to blame schools and colleges for not promoting them properly.
The figures show a huge fall in the number of starts compared with the period last year (down to 114,000 from 156,000, August to October has always been the busiest period for starts) but this has been particularly significant for Intermediate apprenticeships (a 40% fall) a level only equivalent to GCSE and generally lasting only one year, without further employment guarantees. There’s also been a big decrease in the number of adults being enrolled on apprenticeships – in most cases, these have been existing employees, reclassified as apprentices so employers can qualify for funding.
The over-representation of existing employees and the disproportionate number of Intermediate apprenticeships (enrollments on Advanced level schemes show less of a decline, while there’s been a significant increase at Higher level – even if these types of apprenticeships still make up a very small proportion) has been regarded as a serious weakness by almost all critics of apprenticeships and something governments have not been able to reverse.
The continued demise of apprenticeships is likely to mean that policy makers will now focus on the new Tech-levels being unveiled from 2019 and designed to be delivered full-time in further education colleges. Yet there’s little to suggest that these will be any more successful in providing proper employment opportunities for those young people not wishing or not able to spend three years at university.