David Cameron qualified his pledge to create three million more apprenticeships with ‘That’s three million more engineers, accountants, project managers’ http://press.conservatives.com/post/109906886845/david-cameron-a-britain-that-gives-every-child. Expanding the Higher Level apprenticeship will be considered fundamental to this, with the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable arguing at its 2012 launch that:
‘Investing in skills is central to our drive to boost business and productivity and make the UK more competitive… by radically expanding the number of degree level apprenticeships for young people, we will put practical learning on a level footing with academic study. This is an essential step that will help rebalance our economy and build a society in which opportunity and reward are fairly and productively distributed.’
(DBIS Press Release 08/12/11)
Higher Level qualifications were established as Level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications, equivalent to foundation degree study and above. Though it is possible to provide these through a workplace NVQ, employers were also encouraged to work with higher education institutions. There are some schemes like those at BBC where apprentices complete a course of university study, but the influence of private providers is also apparent.
As part of the new Trailblazer initiative –where apprenticeship training schemes are being rewritten to ensure higher levels of quality and to be more in line with specific employer requirements –degree level apprenticeships are now also being established with specifications soon available for everything from quantity surveying and accountancy to solicitor training. These will be designed to work with higher education institutions, not in competition with them.
The main problem is not about the design however. Though the number of Higher Level apprenticeship starts have continued to increase significantly, they still represent only a tiny fraction of the total number however – SFA data showing under 30,000 in existence at the end of 2014/15. With 19,300 starts during 2014/15, there were just over 1,000 starts by those under 19 and 15,000 by those under 25 or over. In the three months between August and October 2015, another 800 under 19 year olds started a Higher Level apprenticeship compared with the 250 000 placed in university for the new academic year.
The only sectors where Higher Level apprenticeships have any visible presence is in health and business management. They are virtually non-existent in engineering and manufacturing. Those employers that have wanted to, have continued to sponsor university students, so it is not clear why they would want to establish Higher Level apprenticeships instead. Secondly, the huge increase in the number of graduates means that employers have much less of a need to protect their future labour supply. Rather than employers finding it difficult to attract highly qualified graduates the issue for the current generation is to avoid being pushed down out of graduate employment.
With two thirds of apprentice starts continuing to be at intermediate Level, this mean that although schools have been criticised for not promoting them, apprenticeships are not an alternative to higher education for young people and schools should not pretend they are. With so few Higher Level starts also, the effect of apprenticeships on universities, even the ‘new’ post-92 institutions many of whom have a strong vocational emphasis, continues to remain unclear
Following Ofsted Chief Michael Wilshaw’s criticism of ‘one size fits all’ academic learning, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has criticised state schools for ‘outdated snobbery’ and promised a new law that ensures they promote technical education and apprenticeships as real alternatives to university. Morgan told the Independent:
‘For many young people going to university will be the right choice, and we are committed to continuing to expand access to higher education, but for other young people the technical education provided by apprenticeships will suit them better’.
But the government’s own figures have continued to show only a minority of the 2 million apprenticeships created since 2010 have been for school-leavers – in 2014/15 just 20% of starts were by those under 19. Well over half of new starts have also been ‘low-level’ (being offered at Intermediate level – equivalent to GCSE, a level that most school leavers have already reached) and ‘dead-end’ (not leading to permanent employment, or allowing progression to higher levels of training). Meanwhile, ‘cutting edge’ apprenticeships in engineering and technology for example, are massively oversubscribed.
Even Ofsted has published a damning report about apprenticeship quality:
‘Inspectors, observed for example, apprentices in the food production, retail and care sectors who were simply completing their apprenticeship by having existing low-level skills, such as making coffee, serving sandwiches or cleaning floors, accredited. While these activities are no doubt important to the everyday running of the businesses, as apprenticeships they do not add enough long-term value.’ (Ofsted, 2015: 4)
Morgan, like Wilshaw, is very good at spelling out options for ‘other people’s children’ but with so few alternatives available for young people, then it isn’t surprising that, despite the fees, most of those who are able will try progress to university to improve their chances of any type of reliable employment. Schools can hardly blamed for encouraging this.
Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative Alternative for Young People?
Rewritten and updated January 2016
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Some three years after the BBC’s Panorama dramatically exposed the misuse of apprenticeship funding by the supermarket chain Morrison; this week’s Channel 4 Dispatches provided further disturbing evidence of how young people continue to be short changed, but also public money misspent, despite government reassurances that the reintroduction of apprenticeships has been a resounding success. Dispatches main target was the clothing chain Next, where young people taken on as ‘apprentices’ complained of low-pay, little if no proper training and worst of all, not even being given permanent employment at the end. Meanwhile, the company had continued to receive government funding – £1.8 million last year – to run a training program now rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
A Great Training Robbery
Using research by the Social Market Foundation, including that by Alison Wolf, commissioned to provide a review of vocational education by the Coalition in 2010, Dispatches argued that training organisations, in order to maximise their income have concentrated on providing low-skilled, but also ‘easy to complete’ and ‘easy to deliver’ apprenticeships in sectors like retailing; encouraging employers to use apprentices as a form of cheap labour without having any obligation to offer them future employment. These sorts of practices, do not, the SMF argues, significantly increase future earnings of the individual and they certainly don’t help the ‘skills shortage’ in areas like engineering or in construction (where apprentice numbers have fallen by a third since 2010) and where growth is essential if future economic prosperity is to be ensured.
As Dispatches acknowledged, the government plans to introduce a levy of large firms raising £2 billion annually, thus providing the funds for better, more advanced training to provide ‘the right people with the right skills’. It also intends to give individual employers more say over the content of apprenticeship training and how funding is used. But as these changes are not due to begin till 2017 at the earliest, the program concluded that in the meantime, young people could be just as likely to vote with their feet.
Dispatches and the SMF can be commended for continuing to expose the shortcomings of apprenticeships, particularly in the light of David Cameron’s pre-election promise of another 3 million by 2020. The failure of apprenticeships to provide real alternatives for young people has been largely ignored by most researchers, campaigners and activists who prefer to focus attention and energy on the inequities of the education system or the increasingly desperate plight of teachers. But it’s also the case that compared with the angry young school leavers parked on Youth Training Schemes in the 1980s, ‘apprentices’ are a diverse group, including people of different ages –many existing employers over 25 continue to be reclassified as apprentices so that training funds can be accessed –with very different experiences in different sectors. As well as thousands being like those at Next, there are also some very good schemes offering excellent training and real opportunities.
A jobs not a skills problem
Yet as well as giving apprenticeships a much greater profile, there’s also a serious need to develop a much wider understanding about their current limitations. Improving the quality and attractiveness of apprenticeships for example will be difficult without making other changes to the economy and the job structure which supports them. If thousands of apprentices are employed as counter assistants in Next, in coffee-shops, or in low-paid ‘customer service’ work, it’s in these sectors where many new jobs are being created. Likewise the reason why there are so few apprenticeships in engineering and in manufacturing is because only around 8% of the workforce are employed here. It’s not just that these sectors have collapsed as a result of overseas competition or extensive ‘outsourcing’, increased automation and the use of robotics also mean that the ‘traditional skills’ referred to by Dispatches will no longer be sought –regardless of whether there is funding available. In otherwords it’s essential that alternative proposals for apprenticeship training (and education for that matter) are part of a wider alternative for the economy in which new types of employment opportunities are both properly planned, properly funded and allow both career and personal development. With a third of the population over 65 by 2050 for example, replacing the current decrepit care service with modern professionally staffed alternative, could be one place to start.
George Osborne’s decision to impose an apprenticeship levy on large firms represents a significant change in policy. In Germany and other European countries, employers are required to make a significant cost towards the cost of apprenticeship and skills training. Under Osborne’s scheme, employers with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million will have to make a payroll deduction of 0.5%. The scheme is expected to raise close to £3 billion –double the current size of the apprenticeship training budget.
Even though a step in the right direction, imposing a levy in itself is not enough to upgrade Britain’s ailing apprenticeships. Unlike in Germany, where agreements exist between employers, trade unions and state institutions, ensuring apprenticeships provide real transitions to work, UK firms will still not be compelled to offer them and certainly not high-skilled ones.Though well over 2 million apprenticeships have been offered since 2010 –David Cameron promises 3 million more –the majority have been ‘low-skilled’ and ‘dead-end’ –mostly at Intermediate (GCSE) Level, without guaranteeing progression to employment or further training. Significant evidence also shows that firms have reclassified existing workers to be able to access training funds . This has allowed government to meet targets. Last year, for example, only 120 000 under 19 year olds began apprenticeships. This can be compared to up to 60% of young Germans –mostly at Advanced Level.
FE gets off lightly?
There’s much relief that a further round of cuts will not decimate the FE sector as Osborne told MPs that core funding for FE (and Sixth Form colleges) will be protected. But the protection is in cash-terms and as there may be falling numbers of students because of demographic changes, colleges fill face reductions. The extension of the FE loans system to 19 to 23-year-olds raises as many questions as it provides answers as does the ‘opportunity’ for Sixth-Form Colleges to become Academies so as to be able to avoid VAT payments.
A ‘truce’ with austerity?
Because of growing opposition endangering his own ambitions to become the next prime Minister, Osborne made a significant U-turn on tax-credits. Does this represent a fundamental change in course, or at least a ‘truce’ with austerity? Not at all. The Chancellor has been given extremely optimistic forecasts by the ‘neutral’ Office for Budget Responsibility (OBS) about future economic performance, that growth will be 2.4% for this year and next and that investment levels will continue to steadily increase.
As a result Osborne’s been allowed what the Financial Times (26/11/15) described as a ‘£27bn emergency exit route’ that allows him to retain his target for a budget surplus by the end of the Parliament –but more importantly, to continue to shrink the size and the role of the state to levels not seen since the 1930s. But previous OBS predictions have not always been correct, with the highly respected Institute of Fiscal Studies, continuing to provide the clearest opposition to the government on economic policy, telling The Guardian (28/11/15) that it was only ’50-50’ that Osborne would not have too revisit his plans.