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Flagship apprenticeships policies will not fill growing skills gap

31 March 2017

The Government's flagship apprenticeships policies have a worrying lack of focus and will not fill widening skills gaps unless they concentrate on sectors and regions where training is most needed, MPs conclude in their report.

The Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy, formed from the Education and Business Select Committees, finds that the Government's Apprenticeship Levy, introduced in the first week of April, and target of three million 'starts' by the end of the Parliament are blunt instruments that risk being unduly focused on simply raising participation levels.

More emphasis needed on outcomes

The Committee says the Government should place far greater emphasis on outcomes, judging success of apprenticeships by, for example, whether individual apprentices secure employment. Ministers should also look to how apprenticeships can help close the skills gap, including by restructuring the levy on a sectoral and regional basis. The Committee also points to concerns that the three million target could hamper attempts to raise quality of provision.

The report highlights tension between the Government's desire to give employers more control over the system and its attempts to use apprenticeships to increase social mobility. The Committee also warns that schools are still failing to promote non-university routes.

Chairs' comments

Neil Carmichael MP, Chair of the Education Committee and Co-Chair of the Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy, said:

"Apprenticeships are vital if we are to close the skills gap, which could grow wider post-Brexit. We must train our young people for jobs that the economy needs, but the Government has failed to show how its three million target and levy will help achieve this.

Ministers must recognise that apprenticeships are a means to an end and not an end in themselves. They need to place greater emphasis on outcomes, focussing on areas of the economy where training is most needed, and ensuring quantity does not trump quality.

For too long apprenticeships have been seen as inferior to the university route and failed to benefit young people from disadvantages backgrounds. We fully support the Government's attempts to improve the prestige of apprenticeships, but it will take more than words to achieve this aim. If the quality is there the prestige will follow."

Iain Wright MP, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and Co-Chair of the Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy, said:

"The Government's flagship apprenticeships policies positively focus on raising participation but are inherently contradictory. Ministers have a centrally-dictated, top-down three million target, welcome though that focus is, at the same time as insisting that this approach will be bottom-up and address the skills requirements of individual firms, sectors and regional economies. These requirements will often be very different and the Government should target those sectors of the economy and regions of the country where skills shortages are particularly acute.

The Government has emphasised in its emerging industrial strategy the importance of supporting and promoting UK productivity and states that apprenticeships will be an important part of this. However, too much training remains sub-standard and detrimental to the career of apprentices and, more widely, the performance of our economy. The success of the Government's reforms will ultimately be judged on whether the planned increase in the quantity of apprenticeships is matched by an increase in their quality."

Annual skill shortages report and the role of Ofqual

A survey by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills' found 209,500 reported skilled vacancies, a rise of 43 per cent from the 146,000 reported in 2013. This is despite apprenticeship 'starts' increasing to 509,400 in 2015-16 (PDF 1.6MB), according to official figures. 

The Committee recommends the Government publishes an annual report setting out the skills shortages on a national, regional and sector-specific basis and set clear targets to ensure that uptake of apprenticeships in these areas is prioritised.

The report also urges the Government to produce an annual survey of performance against clear outcome measures such as completions, progressions to higher levels and relevant employment secured. Official figures show just 67 per cent of apprenticeships were completed in 2015-16.

Ofqual should have a greater role in regulating new-end point assessments, the report adds.

Institute of Apprenticeships and increased financial support

The report welcomes the creation of the Institute for Apprenticeships, which it expects will play a major role in improving quality in the future. However it cautions that the new body must be given sufficient capacity and independence if it is to succeed.

It also calls for more support for apprentices themselves, which could include changes to the benefits system, more subsidised fares on public transport or even direct financial support such as bursaries.

The Committee welcomes the Government's commitment to apprenticeships and supports the aims of its reforms to increase the number of apprentices and improve the quality of the training.

Further information

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