Government figures published on 29 March revealed a concerning drop in the number of UK apprenticeship starts. As the Further Education and Skills stats bulletin pointed out: “There were 194,100 apprenticeship starts reported so far for the first two quarters of the 2017 to 2018 academic year, compared to 258,800 reported at this time [the previous year] – a decrease of 25%.”

However, the bulletin noted: “As of May 2017 there were significant changes to how apprenticeship funding works, including the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy and Apprenticeship Service. This is likely to have impacted on apprenticeship starts and participation as the new approach beds in, so care should be taken in comparing and interpreting [this] data.”

Despite that note of caution, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has registered disappointment with the figures – focusing in particular on what the bulletin revealed about uptake of apprenticeships among younger people.

“[A] 16% drop in the number of 19 year olds starting apprenticeships is not good news,” said FSB national chairman Mike Cherry. “It is a clear signal big businesses have not gotten to grips with the Apprenticeship Levy, [and] also that small businesses not paying the levy are struggling to offer opportunities as well.”

He added: “Apprenticeships are often seen as a great solution in addressing skills gaps, however cost remains a barrier. The small business incentive should be extended to all SMEs which recruit a 16 to 18 year old apprentice, or those which recruit a 19 to 24 year old with an Education, Health and Care Plan, or who have been in care.”

So, are UK apprenticeships running aground – or still finding their feet?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There are a lot of points to make on this topic, which go to the heart of how workable our apprenticeships system is. First of all, there’s no doubt that employers are best placed to develop on-the-job training. It ensures that trainees learn from seasoned individuals who know and understand, in the deepest terms, a number of critical issues, such as:

  • how to apply the required skills to the organisation’s business area;
  • how the relevant market works;
  • the organisation’s culture, and
  • what kind of technological developments are influencing the sector.

“So on those specific themes, employers know what they’re doing. However, BT once had a great system whereby they took trainees in at 16, and those people were given day release – so they would work for four days a week and then go to college on the remaining day to do their ONC or HNC. So there was a really strong relationship between employers and colleges. Over the years, that relationship has, to a large extent, been dismantled. So now we’re seeing employers either form relationships with non-college, external training providers, or beef up their own, internal training departments.”

Cooper explains: “all of those facilities can work. But outside of them, we have the university system. Why is that relevant? Well, here’s one example. Apprentices require an end-point assessment. There’s been a lot of talk lately – particularly on LinkedIn – about these processes, which examine evidence of competence and aim to determine whether the apprentice has completed their training to a high standard. You have to be specially qualified and approved to conduct these assessments.

“It seems to me that when we have existing training providers, colleges and schools delivering vocational qualifications – which obviously include assessment – and you have universities stacked with people who are assessing all the time, why didn’t we just use them to fulfil that part of the apprenticeship process? Why didn’t we say, ‘You people are doing a really great job; please carry on,’ rather than changing who’s allowed to do the assessing – which required the creation of an entirely new approvals process?”

Cooper stresses: “the point of apprenticeships was to get people up to speed on the kind of skills that organisations require. But of course, apprenticeships have been badly misused by organisations that took on people without the slightest intention of training them up for anything other than low-grade work – and then those firms claimed the apprenticeship levy into the bargain. Clearly, that wasn’t sustainable.”

She notes: “it’s absolutely correct that we had reforms that placed a much greater emphasis on gaining capability and learning while you work and ending your apprenticeship with marketable, transferable skills that are useful for both the employer and the individual. However, funding will create behaviours. And one of the behaviours we’ve seen is that a lot of leadership development exercises are now being rated as higher-level apprenticeships – it’s the sort of development that would have been done anyway, but it’s being called something else to enable the firm to claw back the apprenticeship levy.”

Cooper adds: “have the relevant agencies got it right? Probably not. Overlaying other systems on top of systems you’ve already got – in which we have scores of professional assessors who actually know what they’re doing – as an attempt at reform may not have been the most effective course of action. We could have reformed what we already had, rather than trying to invent something else.

“And be mindful of those unintended consequences, in which a lot of training that was going to be done anyway is being rebranded as apprenticeships, purely so firms can access the levy. That may go some way to explaining why the numbers of new starts – whether those people are youngsters embarking upon their careers or older workers changing direction – are so low.”

For further thoughts on developing talent, check out these learning resources from the Institute