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Further education reforms have not delivered for those who most need them most

4 min read

The implementation of the apprenticeship levy and higher-level apprenticeships has left a lot to be desired

Improving the skills of our workforce is integral to efforts to end glaring regional disparities and level up our country. As a former minister for further education, apprenticeships and lifelong learning, I have first-hand knowledge of the vital role further education (FE) providers play in helping people to access the training they need to fulfil their potential. The sector is, too often, ignored by a media conversation obsessively preoccupied by universities and tuition fees. Yet we cannot achieve greater social mobility unless we extend the ladder of opportunity to people who do not wish to commit aged 18 to studying for three- or four-years full time towards a degree.  Extra money alone is not the answer to the problem – we must also address persistent issues with skills policy, some of which have become more evident in recent years.

Off-the-job training at FE colleges has shrunk at the expense of universities or business schools”

The implementation of the apprenticeship levy has had a dramatic impact on training provision. While headlines focus on the overall fall in learner numbers, there has also been a significant change in who is studying and where. On average, apprentices now are older, already in work and more likely to be based in London and the south-east, where a disproportionate number of larger – and therefore levy paying – employers are to be found. Of particular concern is the way off-the-job training at FE colleges has shrunk at the expense of universities or business schools. These changes have led to an understandable concern that the levy is being mis-spent. Indeed, according to Ofsted much of the new provision in HE is merely graduate schemes rebadged as apprenticeships.  When 23 universities, that are large enough employers to be paying the levy themselves, have even found a way of accessing their own contributions by rebadging teaching staff as apprentices, we must ask: is this really an appropriate use of apprenticeship funding?

Though growth in higher level apprenticeships is welcome, the reality is that too much of the new provision at these levels is aimed at those who have already benefited from an advanced academic education. At their core, apprenticeships are for those who excel not in the classroom but through practice and reflection. An effective apprenticeship system must offer a clear path to highly skilled employment, providing a viable alternative to the academic route.

Many of the problems that have emerged with apprenticeships since the introduction of the levy stem from the stipulation that the system should be driven by particular employers. Yet, often individual firms do not have the capacity to think systematically about the best use of the levy and therefore end up using it pay for their existing training. A collective employer voice, working in hand with employee representatives, would be able to articulate need in a way that individual employers cannot. To improve the system we must be prescriptive: stipulating the purpose of apprenticeships, and which learners should be eligible for levy funding, and also which providers are best placed to provide appropriate off-the-job training.

Knowing that young people need clearer signposts to the opportunities provided by apprenticeships and FE, I helped to establish a National Careers Service, so that more people received effective advice and guidance. Under the provisions of the Technical and Further Education Act, schools are expected to allow FE colleges and apprenticeship providers access to pupils to talk about study options. Yet recent research has found that two-thirds of schools are flouting these requirements. Effective implementation, possibly through Ofsted inspection, is required so that young people are better aware of their options.

Building skills brings personal fulfilment to countless Britons. Without the kind and number of skilled people to meet the economy’s needs, Britain as a whole cannot succeed.

Sir John Hayes is Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings and former minister for further education, apprenticeships and lifelong learning

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