I can only hope the range of open days, presentations and information campaigns being hosted by my college and others during this week’s annual National Apprenticeship Week (March 4-8) will convince more employers to set up apprenticeship schemes. And that the government looks again at what many believe to be skewed funding bands for apprenticeships across the board and reducing opportunities for young people.
Surely it’s beyond belief that so much levy money - £27,000 per apprentice - is being sucked into each individual level 6 degree apprenticeship at the expense of lower level, less expensive qualifications designed to raise a worker’s performance from shop floor operative to team leader or from team leader to departmental manager.
There is only a limited levy pot and, while degree apprenticeships are to be encouraged, the emphasis should surely be on training that will benefit many more people and thus contribute far more to closing a widening skills gap. Many of the UK’s larger employers are well able to sponsor their own graduate degree schemes.
Economics of funding are all wrong
A colleague told me this week how the economics are all wrong. “When you deliver to younger apprentices,” she says, “they really need the extra input of time and much more looking after; and that costs far more than current levy funding.”
Funding issues arose when the apprenticeship levy was introduced in April 2017. Previously colleges had received direct state funding and sub-contracted some of the work out to independent training providers. Colleges received funding for young 16- to 18-year-old apprentices that were roughly 2.5 times the amount received for anyone aged 19-plus.
SMEs can’t find the money for 16-18s
Now, under levy funding rules, employers receive the same lesser amount for all ages, depending on the type of apprenticeship, with just a flat annual £2,000 per 16- to 18-year-old split equally between employer and learning provider - regardless of whether the apprenticeship is at level 2 or 7.
Many of the SME employers my college works with want to develop younger apprentices but they simply can't make the economics work.
Another trap some employers have fallen into is rebadging an existing training scheme as an apprenticeship. That’s surely wrong; they should be thinking of each apprenticeship from the ground up as a significant development programme in itself.
Spare some time for functional skills
Then there is the question of allowing time off for learning. Many employers, particularly SMEs, Blanche at the 20% off-the-job training requirement; it can be difficult for smaller businesses and can prevent them from offering apprenticeships. But the conditional funding does emphasise the importance of time off from normal working if apprentices are to really succeed, and it’s an important safeguard against any unscrupulous employer using apprentices as cheap labour.
The rule is not perfect. Colleges and other training providers question why teaching maths and English functional skills - an obligatory requirement of levy funding for an apprentice with no qualification in these subjects - is not part of the 20% off-the-job. It seems quite ludicrous. On one hand Ofsted expects maths and English delivery to be integrated into apprenticeships as much as possible, which we do do, but on the other hand, the government says you can't include it in the 20% although it’s a crucial part of the apprenticeship. A rule change would help us all.
Sub-contracting rules need reworking
There’s one other issue. Before the levy, my college would often sub-contract apprenticeship training requiring specific industry knowledge to a specialist outside providers. Levy rules now insist on the lead training provider - whether college or independent - has to deliver the bulk of the programme. The ruling ends the substantial benefits for apprentices derived from our college’s experiences in project control, programme delivery and management expertise merged with the manufacturing knowledge of a specialist partner.
We need more collaboration and more flexibility in sub-contracting. Yet so much competition has been injected into the market through competitive tendering by providers, funding allocation is tight, and margins have narrowed for all parties.
Solving these problems will go a long way towards encouraging more employers to dip their toe in apprenticeship waters, reverse the decline in young apprentices, and help colleges close a yawning skills gap.