Published:

Simon Fell is MP for Barrow & Furness

More than 20 years ago, Tony Blair set a target to get half of school leavers into higher education. However well-intentioned this may have seemed, it was a bad policy: the number of poor quality degrees increased and a generation of young people racked up debts paying for qualifications giving them few discernible advantages in the job market.

This Government has been right to address the problem that Labour created. It has recognised that young people shouldn’t be shepherded down paths that aren’t right for them and has raised the profile and quality of alternatives to university such as apprenticeships.

Its flagship Apprenticeship Levy – through which big employers contribute to vocational training – has forced large firms to take a stake in improving people’s skills. I see the direct benefits of this in my own constituency of Barrow & Furness – as do the firms that have embraced apprentices and see the benefit of a system that allows you to earn while you learn.

But there’s a problem. As the thinktank Onward’s latest research has found, the number of entry-level, intermediate apprenticeships suitable for people finishing their GCSEs has fallen by 11% since 2017/18 – and has more than halved since 2011/12.

Unfortunately, the places hardest hit by this fall in entry-level apprenticeships are the ones that have historically relied on them more: post-industrial towns in Northern England. There, the number of people starting apprenticeships has fallen in all but two constituencies.

Simultaneously, apprenticeships have become more popular in affluent parts of London and Southern England. So while apprenticeship numbers are falling in the Red Wall, they’re going up in Battersea, Wimbledon, Chelsea and Fulham. That clearly isn’t what ministers intended.

Onward identified one key cause of this: a drop in the number of small and medium sized businesses offering apprenticeships. Historically, SMEs trained up the bulk of young apprentices by giving them their first foot on the career ladder. Their diminishing role in the system should be a real concern to my colleagues in Government as we seek to rebalance the economy and level up communities across Britain.

While the Apprenticeship Levy has been good at getting big firms involved in training, they often don’t spend their levy in a way that benefits the next generation. Too many big firms spend levy funds intended for young people on training up their existing employees – many of whom already have degrees. This has resulted in nearly twice as many over-25-year-olds doing apprenticeships than 19-year-olds. So, apprenticeships are topping up mid-career training, rather than kickstarting a career.

While it is good that employers are investing in their staff, too often this happens at the expense of the young people who would most benefit from an apprenticeship. We cannot allow the system to be monopolised by the middle classes. To address this, Onward have made several policy suggestions, which Ministers and civil servants should read in detail.

The first and most important is to fund apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds on the same basis that they fund A Levels. Currently if a young person wants to do A-Levels then the costs of these will be entirely met by the state. But if they want to do an apprenticeship then they must find a business willing to pay. This disparity is unfair and should be addressed before the next election.

Given the important role that SMEs play in training apprentices, the Government should look at ways to make it easier for them. Onward suggests that the answer lies in local government, by empowering mayors to play an enhanced role in helping local businesses navigate an often-complex system and linking them up with local school leavers. Many local leaders are already doing this.

Ministers should also look at fine-tuning the way the Apprenticeship Levy works. In particular, it should offer longer-term financial incentives to big firms to encourage them to spend their levy funds on training up new recruits rather than topping up middle managers’ degrees.

At the last election, the Government pledged to level up left behind communities, but in too many areas apprenticeships are being levelled down. There is both a moral and a political imperative to fixing this. The Government should get to work.