Apprenticeships Reforms - where are the SMEs?

New guest blogger, Crawford Knott, Managing Director at Hawk Training, shares his thoughts on the apprenticeship reforms.

A few weeks ago, I attended the AELP annual conference. Framed against the background of an impending Brexit, developing the skills base of our country is even more important than ever in order to maximise productivity, efficiency and boost social mobility. It’s fair to say that pressure is mounting on the government to address the issue of falling apprenticeship starts and to act sooner rather than later.  

In order for the government to hit its 3 million apprenticeship starts target by 2020, 206,000 starts will be needed each quarter between now and then – a tall order if the current rate continues. Take-up has been especially low among non-levy paying SMEs, a particular concern in an economy dominated by small and medium-sized businesses. It’s independent training providers (ITPs) that continue to deliver the vast majority of apprenticeships, if you didn’t already know, around three quarters are delivered by providers like Hawk. In addition, over a third of those which fall to the college sector are subcontracted out to private providers making organisations like ours the lynchpin of the apprenticeship sector.

There is some evidence that Government is listening, the Skills Minister Anne Milton MP refrained from making a grand announcement on changing the 10% contribution requirement for smaller employers, but did say that concerns have been noted. A parliamentary debate at the House of Commons has followed around the 10% contribution with the minister in attendance.

Employer speakers were also very vocal, calling for the 20% off the job learning requirement to be made more flexible. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair that work which a GCSE or A Level student completes at home can be included as part of their coursework but the same does not apply to apprentices with them having to do it all in work time in order for it to be included in the 20%. This has no doubt affected take-up of apprenticeships in the SME sector with concerns over releasing learners. There’s no doubt that apprentices need off the job learning, but greater flexibility is required to ensure the needs of the modern workplace are met and that the effort that learners put in outside of work is recognised. Providers also play a vital role in supporting apprentices and employers with the inclusion of aspects like work shadowing, product training, attendance at industry events, etc. in the off the job requirement. Interestingly, Paul Joyce of Ofsted repeated Ofsted’s view that the education watchdog is not there to audit the 20% off the job and will only seek to investigate further should it become apparent that learners are not making sufficient progress and the quality of their learning experience is questionable.

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