It may have only been two years since the government officially declared its apprenticeships reform programme over, but change is firmly back on the horizon. Spurred on by Ministerial interest from Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, apprenticeships, and the skills agenda more widely, is firmly in the sights of government.
While the planned reforms are unlikely to be on the same scale as those introduced under Cameron, the expectation remains that substantial changes will be made, with the aim of focusing on scaling up apprenticeship numbers and improving course quality. The government is under pressure to translate their ambitions into reality, particularly as the apprenticeship levy remains unpopular with employers. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that only one fifth of employers think the levy is working well at present, with dissatisfied employers calling for a more flexible system that allows the funding to be used to pay for a wider range of training.
Ministerial interest, but no overarching strategy
Assuming the government is able to create the bandwidth it needs to take on new policy challenges, apprenticeships, and skill development more widely, will likely rank highly on its list of priorities. With direct interest from Rishi Sunak and ambitious manifesto commitments made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the skills agenda benefits from the attentions of the highest level of government. While this attention ensures that further education is never far from the top of the government’s agenda, it has not resulted in a coherent single strategy, with many of the key players in apprenticeships policymaking pulling in different directions. With the Department for Education, Treasury and now the Department for Work and Pensions all involved in policy development, this does not appear to be changing any time soon, nor does it suggest that the forthcoming round of reforms will be a straightforward one
The implications of this cross departmental interest played out in a very public way during the fallout from Rishi Sunak’s comments during the Spring Statement on 23 March, where he told the House of Commons he would “consider” whether the current tax system, including the operation of the apprenticeship levy, is “doing enough to invest in the right kinds of training”. Sunak, inspired by the employer investment he saw while working in California, is keen to incentivise employer spending on upskilling their workforce, including through the introduction of tax credits and embedding more flexibility for employers in the system.
No sooner than Sunak had spoken the Department for Education were playing down the scope of any further change to the apprenticeships system. Having not been consulted, the DfE pushed back on any assumptions of widespread reform to the apprenticeships system.
This episode is telling for multiple reasons. First, Sunak clearly didn’t feel the need to inform the Department for Education of his plans in advance. This signals that the Department for Education is no longer at the centre of apprenticeships policy and may be further side-lined in terms of the forthcoming reforms. This suggests we are entering a period where employer focused reform – the clear centre of the Treasury’s focus – will be the key narrative driving the policy debate. Expect a focus on making the levy more attractive to employers and increasing incentives for employers to upskill their workforce.
The second is the force with which the DfE denied any reform would be taking place. Having only completed a period of substantial reform two years ago, the Department is keen to move to a ‘bedding in’ period to allow it to focus reform efforts elsewhere. Having just launched the Schools White Paper and SEND Green Paper, as well as dealing with the fall-out from the faltering education catch up programme, Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi will be unwilling (and likely unable) to launch another major reform effort.
Higher apprenticeships have seen growth, but there is still scope for lower level apprenticeships to close the gap
While the DfE may be unwilling to get involved with further reform of the apprenticeships system, one person very keen on the idea is Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey. Apprenticeships as a means to upskill and retrain the workforce, reduce the number of individuals not in education or employment and increase the number of individuals able to improve their career prospects through training is of interest and may change the dynamic of any further tweaks to the system, including a potential move away from post-16 education and towards upskilling of the existing workforce and post-25 education. We are already seeing something to that effect take place – there are now nearly twice as many over-25 year olds doing apprenticeships than 19-year olds.
Currently, this is leading to growth in demand for higher level apprenticeships, at the expense of lower levels. Fewer 16-19 year olds taking apprenticeships, as well as increased popularity of apprenticeships being used by working professionals to top-up their qualifications, is having a significant effect on the demographics of apprentices and the kinds of courses they undertake. While this has had an effect on the uptake of lower-level apprenticeships, there is scope to rectify this. 8.5 million adults in England & Wales, equivalent to 30% of the working population – are qualified to Level 2 or below, something the government is keen to change. Expansion of apprenticeships uptake as a whole is the aim, and the Department for Education, while sidestepping any significant reform programme, will be keen to increase the uptake of low level apprenticeships, by both young people and working adults without these qualifications.
There has never been a quiet time in apprenticeships policy, but set against a backdrop of a major overhaul of the further education and skills agenda, apprenticeships are likely to remain a slowly evolving policy area over the rest of this parliament and in to next. The Chancellor is expected to announce next steps on his work to make apprenticeships more attractive to employers at the Autumn Budget, but ahead of this, it is possible that the government may include an indication of its policymaking in the upcoming Queen’s Speech in May 2022. There is significant scope here for an expansion of the sector if the government can meet its policy aims, but all involved departments will have to work together to see real, coherent progress.
To discuss the government’s latest approach to apprenticeships reform, please email Lizzy Cryar on firstname.lastname@example.org.