Government admits apprenticeship target will be missed

27 Jun 2019 By Lauren Brown

Education secretary says manifesto pledge of 3 million new starts by 2020 is now out of reach

The government will not meet its target of 3 million new apprenticeships starts by 2020, education secretary Damian Hinds (pictured) has admitted.

Hinds reluctantly made the admission during an evidence session in front of MPs in which he was repeatedly asked for an answer on whether the government was set to reach its goal.

Speaking in front of the commons education select committee yesterday, Hinds was repeatedly pushed by Conservative MP and committee chair Robert Halfon on the question, “Is the 3 million target still on for 2020, yes or no?”, with Halfon repeating, “Why don’t you just give me an answer?”.

Hinds conceded the target was “not going to be reached”, adding: “You’re [Halfon] a mathematically adept person and if you project the line out at the moment, in terms of sheer volume, no.”

The government introduced the target before it brought in the apprenticeship levy system in 2017. The new scheme has by plagued by low uptake and complaints from businesses around the flexibility of the system.

The veracity of the target has previously been brought into question, notably by a 2018 House of Lords report which said it “prioritised quantity over quality” and claimed there was a lack of “clear accountability for the delivery and quality of apprenticeships”.

Government statistics show the total number of new apprenticeship starts from 2015/16 – the first full academic year since the target was introduced – to date is a little over 366,000.

According to official data, there were also a total of 256,300 apprenticeships starts between August 2018 and February 2019, up on 232,700 over the same period in 2017/18 but still lower than before the levy was introduced.

Halfon also asked Hinds what the government was doing to address the decline in lower-grade apprenticeships – there was a 38 per cent drop in level 2 [GCSE equivalent] apprenticeships between academic years 2016/17 and 2017/18. 

The government has been criticised in the past for failing to meet its vocational objectives by focusing instead on higher level apprenticeships, though many business groups feel lower level programmes offer insufficient preparation for many roles. 

Hinds responded that the nature of apprenticeships had changed since the target was set: “Employers themselves are designing these apprenticeships and we’ve got more and more starts. [They] have deliberately made them longer, with more off-the-job content and a higher specification. We are seeing at the higher levels more growth and we are seeing fewer starts on lower-level apprenticeships. “

He added: “There was a time in the not very distant past when there were plenty of kids on apprenticeships who didn’t even know they were on apprenticeships,” lauding the rising quality of the qualifications on offer. 

Halfon, however, did not accept Hinds’ explanation. While making clear he was in full support of higher-level apprenticeships, Halfon said: “It is absolutely evidential that level two and level three [A Level equivalent] are particularly helpful to those people from low-income backgrounds and if those are falling away then you’re potentially denying people from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to do an apprenticeship. They may not go on to do a higher one straight away.” 

Hinds said he was not against lower-grade apprenticeships, but as the system was currently predominantly employer-led, organisations were “voting with their feet” and setting higher standards and expectations. 

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