Ministers need apprenticeship in fixing apprenticeships as latest dismal figures on new starts show


Apprenticeships are a wonderful idea in principle, but in practice it is hard to find a better example of the Conservative Government’s failure outside of Brexit. 

Between August 2017 and February 2018 there were 232,700 starts compared with 309,000 for the same period 12 months earlier, a fall of roughly 25 per cent. 

The rate of decline is accelerating. Taking February on its own, there were 21,800 starts, against 36,000 a year ago, a 40 per cent reduction. 

In many ways the number of apprenticeships matters less than their being good, and serving to help up skill the labour force so the UK has a plentiful supply of the sort of highlight qualified workers that it desperately needs. 

But a large number of those that have been taken out will fail to do that. 

Last month I discussed a report from think tank Reform which highlighted a series of problems with the Apprenticeship Levy that employers can reclaim for the purposes of funding them. 

They included the frequent rebadging of existing training programmes as apprenticeships to get back the money, and the emergence of short training courses for low skilled roles that don’t come close to matching historical or international definitions of what an apprenticeship should be. 

Business jumped in on today’s figures to raise criticisms of their own. The Institute of Directors said that “on top of the decrease in apprenticeship starts, around 40 per cent have so far been below the standard internationally recognised as the minimum quality”. 

“Today’s figures yet again show that the system is not working as intended. How much more evidence does the Government need before it takes action?” asked Seamus Nevin head of policy research.

Then there was the British Chambers of Commerce which declared that the “system is just not working”. 

“For SMEs in particular, the new rules have added to the barriers, complexity and cost of recruiting and training staff. For larger firms, the inflexibility of the system has made it difficult to spend their levy funds as they see best, making it feel more like a tax, and leaving less money available to pay for the training people need,” said Jane Gratton, head of skills. 

Both justifiably called for the system to be reformed. 

The Government’s desire to promote apprenticeships is laudable and I have no complaint about it making business pay. British businesses have for too long invested too little in their workforces’ training.

But the system that has been set up clearly isn’t working as intended, and with its failure to heed the calls for reform ministers are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. 

If only there was someone out there who could offer them an apprenticeship in fixing apprenticeships. 

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