The new apprenticeship policy – raising skill levels or creating a bureaucratic quagmire?

applogoOpinions remain sharply divided on the recent changes to apprenticeships in England. The government is certain that this will raise the skill levels in the UK. On the other hand, companies, having been told that apprenticeship funding will be given to them, rather than training providers, are much more skeptical.

At first glance, it looks like the changes have missed their mark, as 80% percent of apprenticeships come from training providers, and only 10% percent from big businesses and 10% from further education colleges.

Small and medium sized businesses are most wary about the changes because they doubt they’ll have the time to run their own apprenticeship programmes. And given that as many as 81% percent of employers today have three apprentices, or fewer – this may not even be worth their while.

So, how is the proposed funding going to be carried out?

Three options are being presented, but alternative models will also be welcome:

Besides funding changes, the newly proposed standards all put the ball in the employer’s court. Employers are now expected to set standards regarding the level of skills, knowledge and competency required to achieve mastery of a specific occupation and to operate confidently in the sector.

Off-the-job training is now set at a minimum of 20 percent. All apprenticeships are to last a minimum of 12 months – with no exception. Competence is to be evaluated through an independent assessment, at the end of the apprenticeship. Following which, apprentices must be graded pass, merit or distinction. It’s also time to brush up on numbers and grammar, because Maths and English requirements will gradually go up.

No doubt the above measures have been taken with the aim to tangibly increase the skill levels of apprentices. They also give employers the power to make sure that the skill sets is the most relevant for their business. But the question remains – is this actually going to happen in practice, or will it remain a theoretical dream?

In addition to earlier funding issues, small and medium businesses are also reluctant to run their own apprenticeship programmes because they would now come under Ofsted inspections. Moreover, the tax system to distribute funding may appeal to some large employers but it is daunting for them.

However, detractors can take heed of the fact that the government is consulting on long term measures to reform apprenticeships and is also taking actions in the shorter term. This is to make it easier for small companies to take on an apprentice.

In fact, companies with 1,000 employees or fewer can take advantage of a £1,500 Apprenticeship Grant for Employers (AGE) for another year, helping them to take on an additional 35,000 young apprentices.

Latest figures show that almost 30,000 young people have been taken on under the current grant.

While these figures are promising, it remains to be seen if more small to medium businesses will implement the new programme, or if it will be a daunting challenge for most, causing apprenticeships to dwindle. We hope not, because these change hope to achieve the exact opposite.

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