Secret Lecturer: Apprenticeship model not fit for purpose

Secret Teacher

Rumblings of discontent among non-levy-paying organisations could not have become much clearer after this week’s survey on apprenticeship funding from the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). 

One of the key findings – non-levy funding is insufficient to meet SME employer demand – backs up my college’s serious worries about creating something ‘high quality’ but ultimately unaffordable and thus unsustainable. 

The government seems more focused on ensuring it has enough money to reach its overly optimistic target of 3m apprenticeship starts by 2020, rather than sitting down with us and other providers to work out the genuine, realistic costs of good apprenticeship training. If this continues, more independent training providers will surely go to the wall, while many more colleges will consider apprenticeship provision unviable. 

Many colleges won’t take the risk

It doesn’t take much to push a college over from financially stable to financially inadequate, so many simply won’t take the risk. Why try to build a Mercedes when you only have funds for a Fiat Panda?

The funding bands being allocated to standards seem more based on what can be afforded in the eyes of Treasury to meet the 3m target by 2020, rather than the cost of delivering a top-class apprenticeship. 

Sadly the target is written in statute – and it would be a brave government indeed who sought to remove the 3m target at this stage.

Funders needs to recognise cost of ‘marketing’ phase

Currently there just isn’t enough funding to raise the standard of provision – the government can’t create a ‘market’ and expect providers to subsidise delivery indefinitely.

The real effort needs to be in planning and preparation. What takes time and money is building relationships with the employer, and negotiation on the delivery model, how the learning will be structured and who will deliver what and when, and that is before any potential apprentices have been assessed for their individual needs. 

Current funding conveniently bypasses all this and just supports the actual off-the-job delivery, forcing us back into a ‘one size fits all’ world because that is all that we can afford to deliver.  

This more commercial approach is relatively new for colleges which are more used to doing the right thing by their students at delivery level. Now everything needs to be costed up and decisions based on affordability. One thing that isn’t happening in our apprenticeship market is ‘segmentation’. The apprenticeship brand covers levels 2-7 (GCSEs to Masters degrees), with all levels needing to include ‘real learning’ across knowledge, skills and behaviours. 

Different cohorts need different approaches

Why do I get the same or less funding to support a proven worker in their career, benefiting both individual and employer, than for training a young person with no previous experience or understanding of work? 

The benefit for the apprentice is clear in both instances, the benefit for the employer in supporting a young person in their first employment less so. The work required to keep a young person engaged across all their studies (including maths and English) and to develop their behaviours (not something an experienced worker normally needs) is arguably much more, and yet generally the funding is less. Should we not start allocating different funding levels?

But you can forget all this if the funding for this modern ‘standard’ type of apprenticeship is not available. Without financial support, we will just create an unsustainable ‘brand’ of apprenticeship – even though the government never tires of telling us that apprenticeship funding has doubled since 2010.

The government has to see the light 

We could overcome this inherent weakness in the system if the government accepted it was going to miss its target. We could then start talking sensibly about the actual cost of delivering a high-quality offer. Our big ask is that the government along with the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the Institute for Apprenticeships work much more closely with training providers that do know the cost of getting to the point of delivery and then the cost of high quality delivery after that. 

Only when the government enters these conversations and stops assuming employers know best in every case will we ever get get close to the high quality apprenticeships that will help the UK survive Brexit amid all its uncertainties.

Meanwhile, colleges are attempting to make the best of a bad situation in the hope that their huge concern about a sustainable future will persuade the government to come off its high horse and get real about funding.

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