It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on apprenticeships. While the pandemic did not create inequalities, it has certainly exacerbated them. In apprenticeships, Level 2 starts have fallen by 45% and level 3 by 33%. We have also seen the shift towards higher level apprenticeships, with a move away from younger, and more socially disadvantaged participants. NACRO have quite rightly shone a light on these injustices in their recent Learn Without Limits policy paper, which found that 1 in 5 young people are failed by the current education system. We owe it to our learners to build back fairer and ensure the skills system is accessible and works for all.
AELP strongly welcomed the Chancellor’s Plan for Jobs and the focus on embedding apprenticeships and other post-16 learning into the recovery, however- as with everything- the devil is in the detail.
Traineeships are incredibly effective at getting young people- often from the most disadvantaged backgrounds- into apprenticeships or paid employment. We recently we received the welcome news that 16-to-18 traineeship market entry was opened up to more providers. If we are to have any hope of hitting the Chancellor’s ambitious targets of trebling the number of participants on traineeships, it’s only right that independent training providers- who already have a great record of delivering for the 19+ age group-can support delivery at 16-to-18 too.
Our members have very mixed views about Kickstart. On one hand, some providers have found this very useful and that candidates have been very high quality. However, others have found referrals difficult and delayed, with only around 10% of the target number of participants on programme. There is also concern that these opportunities lack mandatory training and are predominantly going to graduates rather than the intended audience- those furthest from the labour market.
Providers have also raised concerns about Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) programmes such as Kickstart and Restart displacing potential apprenticeship and traineeship participants. Clearly, there needs to be better joining up across the skills and employment system, and the DWP and Department for Education (DfE) need to be working more closely.
Free level 3 qualifications for eligible adults is a real positive, but we would like to see this extended to level 2 and below learners too. Not everyone is at level 3, and it is vital we ensure all learners- no matter their age or background- have a fair chance at getting on the ladder of opportunity.
We were delighted that the Chancellor used his Conservative Party Conference keynote to announce the extension of the £3000 incentive for employers taking on new apprentices. So far, the additional incentives created over 100,000 apprenticeship opportunities, tackled youth unemployment and supported struggling businesses. So why stop there? Let’s hope the Chancellor takes this even further than January 2022. Employers and learners need that additional support while our economy continues to recover.
The spending review will be a pivotal event for the future direction of the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund. This is the key replacement programme for the legacy ESF funded skills and employment programmes that have had such a positive impact on the lives of many tens of thousands of individuals and employers in this country.
Despite political appetite for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to be seen as “new and better”, the fund’s principles build on the foundations laid by its predecessor and at its centre. It should continue to be focused on supporting the most disadvantaged individuals in society with skill needs at level 2 and below. ESF programmes were effective at supporting disadvantaged individuals as the innovative approach to delivery allowed for the development of a supply chain of specialist and niche providers to reach parts of the community that mainstream provision simply couldn’t.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have championed apprenticeships since 2019, and so they should. But we need more support in tackling the immediate and longer-term challenges. Apprenticeships need to be put on sustainable footing. It is unsustainable to keep operating in a low-skill, high-vacancy climate, where we cannot go from one week to another without the headlines being dominated with another workforce crisis.
There is much to be positive about, but let’s “level up” learning even further and focus on tackling disadvantage in every area, at any age and at every level of study. If we take a bolder approach and really give vocational learning the parity it deserves, we can make the skills gap a thing of the past.
AELP are a national membership body, representing around 800 organisations involved in the delivery of vocational learning and employability. AELP members support thousands of businesses and millions of people across England by delivering the majority of apprenticeships, traineeships and programmes for the unemployed.
Jane Hickie is Chief Executive of Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)