Prof. Ewart Keep gives his views on the latest Government apprenticeship policy update.
Some more, rather sketchy details about how the apprenticeship levy will operate have recently dribbled out of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). Do they reassure us that the apprenticeship reform package is on track? Not really.
The acid test is going to be how employers who pay the levy choose to react to this payroll tax. Early indications, including evidence to the House of Commons select committee inquiry into apprenticeships, suggest that many commentators and employer representatives foresee large-scale gaming of the system, the re-badging of existing training to recoup levy payments, and a knock-on reduction in firms’ spending on other forms of training as all being highly likely. How the 98% of employers who don’t pay the levy will have their apprenticeships supported by Government remains as unclear as ever. Moreover, when employers (large and small) calculate just how much ‘co-contribution’ they will need to make to fund each apprenticeship, especially at higher levels, they may not be very happy, or willing to expand provision.
If the levy were the only change taking place, there might have been less reason for concern, but its potential to interact with the other, parallel reforms – of standards and learning content, off-the-job training requirements, minimum duration, and assessment and certification – add massively to the dangers of failure. There are two problems.
First, many of these changes are leaps in the dark. No one yet knows how quickly and with what enthusiasm many employers and, more importantly, training providers, will move to abandon the existing apprenticeship frameworks and adopt the new Trailblazer standards, developing teaching materials and learning packages to enable their delivery. Nor do many people seem to have a clear estimate of what the costs of the new system of terminal assessment will be, or who will act as assessors, especially for those standards that contain no existing qualifications.
Second, many of these changes will add to the costs of apprenticeship, both for employers (for example, a minimum of a day a week off-the-job training will not be greeted with loud cheers by many retail employers), but also for providers, many of whom have become used to a model of Level 2 apprenticeships in service sector jobs where the apprenticeship has largely consisted of on-the-job learning and assessment of skills in the workplace. The economics of apprenticeship reform may not stack up for key players.