MPs slam apprenticeship off-the-job rules as a ‘burden’ on employers

But skills minister Anne Milton defends levy as ‘giving businesses a focus’

MPs grilled experts over the shortcomings of apprenticeships yesterday, including the unpopular requirement of the levy for workers to dedicate one fifth of their time to training away from the workplace. 

In an education select committee hearing, MPs queried witnesses from education regulator Ofsted and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) about the 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement. The politicians raised concerns over the lack of clarity about who was responsible for enforcing the quality of apprenticeship training and the “burden” that apprentices spending one day a week out of the office could place on employers.

Trudy Harrison, Conservative MP for Copeland and co-chair of the apprenticeship delivery board, questioned whether Ofsted had been provided with sufficient resources to police the quality of off-the-job training, pointing out that “20 per cent of rubbish is still rubbish”.

Paul Joyce, deputy director for further education and skills at Ofsted, said the regulator had monitored off-the-job training as part of its inspection framework before the introduction of the levy, but added that it was not auditing the delivery of the 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement specifically. 

“Inspectors are focusing particularly on the quality rather than quantity of work-based training, and how that interacts with the organisation… the 20 per cent bit is not something we currently police,” he said. 

Flagging the dip in apprenticeship starts since the levy’s introduction in April 2017, Harrison said that, if the levy aimed to deliver greater autonomy to employers, there was a need to recognise that the training requirement might be “too much of a burden”, particularly for small employers, and would act as a deterrent to delivering apprenticeships. 

Keith Smith, director of apprenticeships at the ESFA, countered that the levy’s purpose was to “raise the bar” in the impact apprenticeships have, not just on businesses but on national productivity and skills gaps. 

“The off-the job-training element, and the important work to provide structured training, is an important part [of value added],” he said. “For employers, this means changing the perspectives of what an apprenticeship is, and how to invest in a high-quality apprenticeship – for some, that’s an investment they will have to make.” 

In her evidence to the panel, skills minister Anne Milton said the levy – which requires businesses with an annual payroll bill of more than £3m to pay 0.5 per cent into a digital account – marked a “huge change” in apprenticeship provision in the UK, and that she viewed the system as a success. 

“This country had a poor history on investing in skills, in growing its own workforce. Government saw this as its responsibility and, despite the very best intent of successive governments, this has never quite worked,” she said. “I think what the levy has done is given employers a focus that makes them realise this is something they have to address.” 

On Monday, education secretary Damian Hinds was also pushed to defend the levy, after Judith Cummins, Labour MP for Bradford South, asked him to comment on the British Chambers of Commerce’s recent accusations that it was “unfit for purpose”

“We are in a period of change, and some employers are taking longer to bed down what they are going to do with their apprenticeship levy money,” Hinds said. “We must bear in mind that they have two years to do that with each month’s money, but we are seeing a shift to longer, higher-quality apprenticeships, and that trend is to be welcomed.” 

This is not the first time the 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement has been slammed, with aggravated employers at last October’s World of Learning Conference and Exhibition calling it “frankly impossible”

The next round of statistics on apprenticeship starts and commitments are due to be released on 17 May. Last month’s figures revealed a 25 per cent drop in the number of starts for the beginning of 2018.