There is more than one factor behind the disastrous 61 per cent drop in starts since the levy reforms for the apprenticeship programme began. But one of the key ones that is stopping both levy-paying and the smaller non-levy paying employers from offering young people and adults new apprenticeship opportunities is a recently introduced rule that rigidly requires 20 per cent of all apprenticeship training to take place off the job over a minimum of 12 months. While there are flexible and innovative ways of meeting this requirement, it is a rule that is encountering resistance among private and public sector organisations despite efforts by training providers to show them that valid good practices exist to comply.
The arbitrary equivalent of a day release every week in a 21st century economy belongs to another era. It offers no guarantee of quality learning for the apprentice and Ofsted is not interested in inspecting it as such. Furthermore, there are many examples of on-the-job training that are far superior to the off-the-job equivalent.
Employers are pushing back against what is just a funding rule. Some say they can’t afford the non-productive time or the cost of staff backfill. Even worse, the rule is acting as barrier to social mobility, reducing the number of opportunities for young people to start an apprenticeship at level 2 with the promise of progression.
We need to be clear here: this isn’t an argument against good-quality training and the proper development of knowledge, skills and behaviour. It is just the best way to deliver these will vary by sector, level and setting – certainly not a one size fits all.
A major flaw in the requirement is that time teaching applied English or maths to an apprentice who did not achieve a good grade at GCSE doesn’t count towards the 20 per cent, even though attainment in these subjects to at least level 1 is needed to complete a programme. Nor does it take into account the ability of the individual apprentice or indeed the quality of the training being given.
Then there is the issue of off-the-job training having to be part of contracted hours. Traditionally, if an employer has invested in a person’s professional development in, for example, finance (eg an ACCA qualification), there has been an expectation that the person will in return invest in evening or weekend study to achieve the qualification. The employer is still investing via the levy, so why should the expectation be any different for an apprenticeship? The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) has been told by many employers, particularly in the private sector, that such a massive shift in expectations is totally unrealistic.
Ministers keep saying that the apprenticeship reforms are employer driven and, in the AELP’s view, paying the levy means employers are entitled to have a say on what an apprenticeship should look like. Therefore we believe that the employer-led trailblazer groups should be given the responsibility to decide what percentage of off-the-job training is appropriate for their particular sector and at each level. For example, Pret A Manger told the AELP: “We wholeheartedly support the proposal. These groups understand the demands and needs of our business and therefore we believe they will be in a position to determine the best percentage that should be delivered.”
There may be different approaches depending on the employer, employment and setting for each apprentice. In the meantime, I urge employers to talk to a registered apprenticeship training provider about how compliance with the existing rule can be achieved.
We are saying to ministers that we need an early open debate on the design of the model that will be used for apprenticeships after the non-levy paying employers join the levy payers on the digital apprenticeship service in April 2019, and this includes looking at the off-the-job rule. Let’s not stumble into another catastrophe with a programme that has so many positives.
Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers