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Quality apprenticeships sacrificed for quantity

Employers and HR professionals react to a report criticising the government's apprenticeship strategy

Serious concerns have been raised off the back of a National Audit Office (NAO) report that the quality of apprenticeships is being sacrificed for quantity.

The Delivering value through the apprenticeships programme report found that the government’s apprenticeship plans lack strategic links to boosting productivity. It suggests a focus on reaching three million apprenticeships by 2020 does little to demonstrate how apprenticeships affect overall skills levels, address skills gaps or improve achievement rates.

The report comes just a few months ahead of the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, which critics say will harm employers' ability to offer quality schemes by being overly prescriptive.

“This levy needs a fundamental rethink because it’s a sledgehammer, and an ill-thought-through means to getting more without real regard for quality and targeting hard to recruit for places where we have skills gaps,” Sue Evans, head of human resources and organisational development at Warwickshire County Council and president of the PPMA, told HR magazine.

The result will be unscrupulous providers offering low-quality training she said. “It plays straight into the hands of those who would pile it high and sell it cheap. We already have studies that show some apprentices don’t receive any training… they’re just given half a day’s e-learning.”

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “The NAO is right to highlight that further progress is needed to manage the risks involved in the reform programme, because if we don't get the transition process right there's a real danger that the quality of apprenticeships will be adversely affected.”

Cath Sermon, employment director at Business in the Community (BITC), told HR magazine: “Increasing the number and quality of vocational learning opportunities is an ambition we wholeheartedly support, but apprenticeship policy could work much better for businesses, employees and jobseekers if it was more closely aligned to skills gaps and recruitment needs rather than set arbitrarily around the size of a company’s overall payroll bill."

Evans added that focus on higher-level schemes will be compromised. “Higher-level apprenticeships will bring quality of learning that’s useful for us. You bring in new skills; you’re developing the workforce for the future,” she said.

Petra Wilton, director of strategy at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), agreed with the report’s finding that level two and three apprenticeships offer little or no economic return, and reiterated the value of higher apprenticeships by contrast: “According to Sutton Trust research, higher apprenticeships deliver more earnings potential than a degree from non-Russell Group universities – that’s a higher salary than 85% of UK universities can expect for their graduates," she said.

“In terms of meeting the key needs of the economy, the OECD reports that management skills are the key factor holding back UK growth and productivity, so UK companies using apprenticeships to drive up their management capability will answer the needs of both their future talent and the wider economy.”

Research released today by the CMI suggests, however, that young people’s aspirations to receive such high-level training are already being thwarted, leading to widespread disillusionment about the opportunities available.

Age of Uncertainty: Young people’s views on the challenges of getting into work in 21st century Britain, produced in conjunction with the EY Foundation, found that two in five (40%) 16- to 21-year-olds aspire to become the boss of a company and 63% would like to lead a team.

But such ambitions are not being met. One in three (32%) young people lack faith in local job prospects and just a third (35%) believe local firms offer career opportunities to match their leadership ambitions. One in two (56%) young people said that they think it is difficult to get the experience they need to get a job they want.

Evans warned that a deterioration of the quality of apprenticeships will quickly undo the good progress made in improving perceptions of this option, further worsening disillusionment, both among young people and their parents.

“Parents are the biggest challenge at the moment as we have a group of people who have been brainwashed into thinking the only route is university,” she said. “We were just winning that argument, but this will reverse that good work. We’ve given so much feedback to the government; feedback from industry has been consistent. But the government is ploughing full steam ahead and not taking any notice.”