Secret Lecturer - Sidelining young apprentices is a dangerous game

Published: 09 Oct 2017

Secret Teacher

Sidelining young apprentices is a dangerous game

Has the government given up on the idea of 16- to 18-year-old apprentices? Last month Department for Education data showed only 15% of all levy-funded apprentices were aged 16-18, while earlier this year the government was encouraging people over 60 to take up apprenticeships. I applaud folk getting training at that age and some being publicly subsidised, but isn’t the idea of a 65-year-old apprentice slightly daft? 

Each year employment bodies get gooey-eyed over how marvellous it is to see yet another record broken for the oldest person to have taken GCSE English. Great, but a serious policy it is not.

Most people think apprenticeships serve as young people’s inductions into skilled employment. Any good apprenticeship should reflect the fact young apprentices are students in a workplace setting, giving them time to mature and not just to focus on the narrow demands of the job at hand.

What’s wrong with short training courses for older workers?

There’s nothing wrong with increasing workforce skills, but surely anyone from their mid-50s onwards wishing to retrain would be better off on a short, focused adult training course? An awful lot of training depends wholly on government funding and many providers deliver for free a pretty low level of skills training to numerous firms that can, frankly, afford to pay for it themselves.

People seem to be pressing the apprenticeship button because it delivers a jackpot – nothing else seems to work with the treasury. The government is targeting 3m apprenticeship starts but it doesn't say how old the apprentices have to be – large numbers over 25 seem quite acceptable. 

So I worry for those 16-18s who do not suit full-time education courses for both good and bad reasons – some will not learn effectively in college but will be enthused to learn by working on the job. When did anyone mention reinstating the education maintenance allowance?

No barriers to switching 16-18 funding

Young people’s interests may also have been damaged by the recent merging of the FE and HE sectors (previously under the old Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) with the DfE, which had previously only handled schools. Before it was not easy to switch 16-18 funding across to support adult apprentices; now there’s no barrier.

My own and other colleges do find 16-18s more difficult to place. Companies get less initial return on their investment (though research by the Frontier Economics consultancy has found no employer actually saying 16-18s were more expensive to take on than older apprentices).

There are also fewer incentives to take on young apprentices. Pre-levy, colleges were subsidised directly to promote apprenticeships, with the more successful providers earning the largest subsidies. If there were any problems with young apprentices, colleges would put them through an induction first. But now that state cash goes instead direct to employers who have to pay for apprentices out of their own levy pot, the employers may be tempted to take on 19-year-olds rather than 16-18s, particularly if the funding rate for the latter is higher. 

Young apprentices should be publicly funded

So what’s the solution? It’s hard to see the government changing direction over something as fundamental as the apprenticeship levy. Maybe the answer is publicly funding 16-18s directly and leaving the levy funds to pay both for older apprentice provision and adult training.

Lack of work placements compounds the problem further; the government says 60-day placements are a key part of the new T-levels and so dozens of providers are asking for places from employers already feeling the pressure. We should view the falling numbers of 16-18 apprentices as a wake-up call to prioritise the need to find good quality placements over any fixation with targets and numbers.

I don't think the levy and the new system was brought in to reduce the number of 16-18 apprentices, but that could be the outcome. We’ll have a double nonsense - the clearest notion of an apprentice in the public’s mind will get fewer opportunities, while those for whom apprenticeships are much less suitable will still have to go through the programme because that is what ticks the cash register for the levy. The system is upside-down!

The levy is a stealth tax you can claw back again

Let’s face it, the Tories are totally allergic to raising taxes – instead they’ve introduce a stealth tax they call a levy so they can say they have not raised taxes on businesses. But of course they have. What’s more, it’s a funny sort of tax you can get back again if you just jump through certain hoops! 

In fact, many big employers won't claw all the tax back as they will not offer enough apprenticeships, and this enables the government to use the balance to fund training in SMEs and firms that are non-levy-payers. Conservative ideology dictates you mustn’t raise taxes, you must put employers in the driving seat – and you can't trust colleges. 

I believe a positive way forward through this quagmire would be to step back from the levy and treat 16-18s the same as sixth-formers with public funding, subsidised pubic transport and all the other concessions that students enjoy. 

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