What’s happening to apprenticeships?

This blog doesn’t often venture into the world of further education and training. It is a specialist area that is generally best left to those that know more about it that myself. However, I was struck by the data on apprenticeships published by the DfE yesterday, amid a range of other statistics. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/apprenticeships-and-traineeships-july-2018 We are not, of course at the end of the statistical year for this dataset, but the fourth quarter is usually the quietist. As a result, the August to April data can be regarded as a relatively safe verdict on the direction of travel for apprenticeships.

It might have been thought that the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017 would have provided a boost for the number of new apprentices, as firms and public bodies sought to access their contributions to the Levy and the additional government support on offer. Sadly, that doesn’t seem always to have been the case. I know this from my continual questions to Oxfordshire County Council about the use, or lack of use, of the approaching half a million pounds collected from schools within the county. Sadly, if not used after two years the money goes to the Treasury coffers and not back to the schools from whose budgets it was collected: it is not as if schools have cash to spare and taxing them like this is bad government on a big scale.

Anyway, back to the data. In the period August 2017 to April 2018, some 753,300 apprenticeships were recorded. This is down from the 870,000 recorded in August t2016 to April 2017. The fall in under nineteens was from 689,300 to 592,700. Even accepting the fall in the size of the age cohort, this looks like quite a large fall in the number of young people on apprenticeships since the Levy was first raised in April 2017.

This fall is conformed in the data on new starts to apprenticeship, where the numbers seem even more dramatic, even after allowing for the possible late registration of some apprenticeships. As the DfE Bulletin notes: 290,500 apprenticeship starts have been reported so far in 2017/18, compared with 440,300 and 384,500 at this time in 2016/17 and 2015/16, a decrease of 34.0 and 24.5 per cent respectively. This doesn’t seem like a very good testimony to the creation of the Apprenticeship Levy. Surely, it was designed to increase participation and offer a route for young people that might want to earn and learn rather than pay and study at university. Under 19 starts are down in the nine month period from 122,800 to 90,300 across all of the apprenticeship routes. Even allowing for the change in size of the cohort, this is a disappointing statistic.

The drive to increase apprentice numbers has stalled. The 2017/18 numbers look being the lowest yearly total since the present record set was first collected in 2011/12. At a time when skilled labour is needed across the economy, either young people are turning their backs on apprenticeships in favour of higher education or the new system isn’t working, but is acting as a re-run of the Selective Employment Tax of the 1960s and sucking cash out of employers ad their business to eventually provide a windfall gain for the Treasury. Either way, a rethink seems necessary.

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