Apprenticeships have become this government’s flagship policy for improving skills in England, and for opening up more opportunities to young people. In its industrial strategy, the government set out a clear aspiration: increasing the number of apprenticeship starts will help to narrow the productivity gap with other advanced economies by delivering the skills the labour market needs, while also raising the standards and status of technical qualifications.
Expectations on apprenticeships are, therefore, high. But are they being met?
The government’s 2015 target, of 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020 now looks increasingly unlikely.  With the transition from the old apprenticeship frameworks to the new employer-led standards, the number of companies offering apprenticeship places and students taking them has dropped. In the first quarter of 2017/18, the number of apprenticeship starts fell by 30%, from 164,200 to 114,400 compared to the previous year.
This probably reflects employers’ caution over the new policy, with only two thirds of expected levy-paying firms having actually registered an Apprenticeship Service Account and only a small number of apprenticeship starts paid for from the levy pot.  In a report published last year, EPI found that many companies thought the government should provide more flexibility on how to spend the levy. However, other research has shown that employers might have been setting standards which are either too broad on what they cover, or too specific. The government now needs to reach a balance between the needs of employers and quality of provision.
Furthermore, apprenticeships can’t be detached from the roll-out of T-Levels. Of the 15 post-16 technical routes, four will be delivered through apprenticeships and eleven through T-Levels. Whatever route students takes, for most of them there will be apprenticeship opportunities at the highest level of skills, which means they will be crucial to the development of high level technical skills. Concerningly, the phase-in of T-Levels has been delayed for one year, now starting in 2020, which together with a sluggish transition to apprenticeship standards begins to cast doubt on whether the government’s strategy to raise standards and numbers across technical education will be successful.
Work-based learning and technical education can drive economic competitiveness, provide the labour market with the skills it needs, and contribute to stable and skilled employment by smoothing young people’s transition into the labour market.
For these reasons, the Education Policy Institute will be addressing the current state of apprenticeship policy in England at a conference on the 6th of April, exactly one year after the levy was introduced.
This timely event, co-hosted by JP Morgan and the German foundation Bertelsmann Stiftung, will feature a new report led by Professor Stefan Wolter with the support of EPI on the value for money of apprenticeships for employers, looking at alternative models of provision. The event will also present new research by leading academics from the London School of Economics – Centre for Vocational Education Research, and end with a panel of business and providers representatives and policy experts.
You can find more information about the conference here.