Scott Kelly lecturers at New York University (NYU) in London.
According to the remit of the review of post-18 education launched at the start of the year, the Government is committed to proving technical and vocational routes as a genuine alternative to going to university. Yet, though the appetite for more higher education appears finally to be sated, progress towards providing a viable alternative for school leavers is proving painfully slow and may have completely stalled.
The rather depressing truth is that apprenticeships – which represent the best way of learning valuable skills through workplace training – are becoming increasingly inaccessible to young people. Apprenticeship starts are in sharp decline, down 28 per cent, year-on-year, according to the latest figures. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy just over a year ago is at the root of the problem. Not that the levy itself is a bad idea. The Government was right to identity under-investment in training as a persistent problem and some businesses have embraced the new system. But the way the levy is being implemented simply does not reflect how businesses operate. The Institute for Apprenticeships oversees a system that is prescriptive where it should be flexible and permissive where it should be demanding.
Levy-paying employers are severely limited in how they can spend the funds. For example, big businesses are not allowed to transfer more than ten per cent of the money along their supply chains to non-levy paying SMEs. In sectors like construction, where sub-contractors employ most of the practical workforce, a gaping hole in training funds has opened up, necessitating the recent launch of a £22 million Government fund to tackle the growing shortage of skills.
Confounded by bureaucratic rules about how the funds can be used, many employers have disengaged completely and treat the levy as a tax. The Department for Education’s own figures suggest that businesses have spent just ten per cent of their levy contributions in the first year. Some employers have found that the simplest practicable way of clawing their money back is by rebadging their existing training as apprenticeships.
The Deputy Director of Ofsted warned recently that much of the apprenticeship programme is beginning to resemble Train to Gain, a wasteful workforce development programme from the Labour years that did little to raise skills levels. One of the first actions of the Coalition Government in 2010 was to axe Train to Gain and move most of the money over to more demanding apprenticeships. Subsequent years saw rising apprenticeship numbers accompanied by improved standards. Much of this progress is now in danger of being lost.
The decline in apprenticeship starts is creating a dangerous gulf in the opportunities available to young people who want to follow a technical pathway. T-levels are supposed to fill this gap, but the recent announcement that the first three will be available to teach from 2020 overshadowed delays in the roll-out of a further 22 courses. Given that T-levels must include a work placement of between 45 and 60 days, it will take time and effort to build the level of employer engagement needed to secure significant learner numbers.
The Government needs to act now or risk a generation of school leavers missing out on the opportunity to acquire technical skills. Apprenticeships and T-levels should be integrated into a single, broad, technical route. To make this route viable, employers should be given greater freedom to spend the apprenticeship levy in ways that enable more young people to train in the workplace, either through a full apprenticeship or a lengthy T-level work placement. In return, the government should require rigorous training standards. In essence, Government must recognise that employers need real support if they are to help turn our narrow technical path into a superhighway.