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Apprenticeship increase not as simple as it sounds

18 November 2015

In his speech to the Association of College (AoC) Annual Conference this week, Nick Boles said that colleges should be doing more to increase the number of apprentices they train. He's right but he made it sound simpler than it is. For the last seven years apprenticeships have been a top political priority which has been both positive and negative. Ministers have protected the apprenticeship budget and have supported major campaigns to engage employers. However political interest has also brought with it constant reform and change which, in turn, makes investment harder. The last seven years have also seen two pieces of legislation (one to regulate apprenticeship programmes, the other to transfer control to the minister). The new apprenticeship standards developed in the first big phase are now being replaced by trailblazers in the second. There have been three funding systems and a complete overhaul is on its way in 2017. Loans for adults taking advanced apprentices started and were then abandoned four months later. Rules were made more flexible in 2010 and have been steadily tightened to eliminate short programmes and to ensure apprentices are treated fairly by employers and training sub-contractors. Every one of the rule changes has had an appropriate justification and makes sense in its own terms but the relentless reforms have consequences. Some colleges took an expansion track then found it was the wrong turn. Others who have been more cautious have sometimes found this lost them relationships or contracts. The net result for colleges overall has been growth* at a time of large cutbacks in skills funding. The average college trains more than 1,000 apprentices a year, 300 of whom are aged 16-18. Colleges train one-third of apprentices overall but a half of those in construction and engineering. Right here, right now, there is a great appetite to do more but more uncertainty ahead. It is only 18 months until levies and digital vouchers start and there is not much information on how they will work. They should be long-term benefits but they may be planning blight in the short term. Having a levy to fund apprenticeships alongside tax revenue will bring more funding security but may lead some employers to focus on financial issues rather than training quality. The shift upmarket to higher level trailblazer apprenticeships leaves doubts about Level 2 programmes which match the current labour market. The odd incentives for young people in the English education system will continue to make it harder to develop a stable apprenticeship system to match our competitors. AoC will take up the Minister's invitation to work with Government on developing college apprenticeship activity but we need an honest acknowledgement of all the issues. *College income from apprenticeships was £450 million in 2011-12 and is forecast to be £550 million in 2015-16. Colleges trained 71,000 apprentices aged 16-18 in 2013-14 (the last full year where information is available) and 220,000 apprentices aged over 19