Experts welcome government proposals for new flexible apprenticeships

But some criticise ‘narrow’ scope and lack of levy reform as Department for Education launches consultation into multi-employer qualifications

Experts have welcomed government proposals for a new flexible apprenticeship scheme that would allow apprentices to work across multiple projects with different employers, however some have said the reforms don’t go far enough to counter the limitations of the apprenticeship levy.

Under the Department for Education’s (DfE) proposed flexi-job apprenticeship schemes, instead of working 12 months or more with a single employer, apprentices would be allowed to work across a range of projects and with different employers as part of the same qualification.

The proposals – outlined as part of a DfE consultation launched yesterday (20 April) – would enable sectors with flexible employment patterns and short-term roles, such as construction, agriculture and the creative industries to create more opportunities for younger workers.

First announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak in the spring budget, Sunak said the reforms would create more opportunities for apprentices across England, giving them “the hope, skills and experience to progress their career and drive our recovery from the pandemic”.

The announcement came with the backing of Tim Davies, director-general of the BBC, who said the flexible apprenticeship schemes would be “critical for the future of our industry” by helping workers from a wide range of backgrounds to develop skills and expertise.

However, Lizzie Crowley, senior skills advisor at the CIPD, raised concerns the proposals wouldn't go far enough. Welcoming the consultation, Crowley said many sectors where project-based work was the norm struggled to host full apprenticeships, meaning young people were missing out on a “crucial pathway into the labour market”.

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But, Crowley added: “The government needs to go further than tinkering with apprenticeship flexibility and reform the apprenticeship levy, which the evidence shows is restricting the number of apprenticeships going to young people and undermining employer investment in skills more widely.”

Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), also raised concerns over the “narrow” scope of the government’s approach. 

She told People Management that while the AELP has always been strongly supportive of portable apprenticeships in principle, she added that “a key question for us is whether longer-term reform will be more ambitious in terms of the number of sectors it will cover because at the moment the scope seems rather narrow”.

“However we recognise the sense in the government adopting a measured approach,” Hickie added.

Last month, research from the CIPD found the number of apprenticeship starts fell by 35 per cent between 2016-17 and 2019-20. At the time, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, warned apprenticeship opportunities for young people would be restricted and employers would be less able to invest in skills.

“On all key measures the apprenticeship levy has failed and is even acting to constrain firms’ investment in apprenticeships and skills more broadly,” he said. 

The flexi-job apprenticeship consultation will run for six weeks, closing on 1 June, and is seeking views from employers, apprentices, sector bodies and existing apprenticeship training agencies.

The DfE will then launch the flexi-job apprenticeships fund in July 2021, at which time employers will be invited to submit bids for the £7m fund.