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Recent history should be a warning against changing the apprenticeship levy

The ongoing slump in apprenticeship starts since the apprenticeship levy was introduced has emboldened the lobbyists, and those with vested interests.

They know that as the manifesto commitment to three million starts by 2020 creeps further out of reach, the government may listen to calls for policy changes that would remove “barriers”.

Demands for change include watering down the off-the-job training rule, removing employer fees for the majority of apprenticeships, increasing the funding caps for standards, and letting unspent levy funding be used for other forms of training.

Yet these think-tanks, employers, providers and their membership bodies also complain about policies constantly being introduced or changed in the further education sector.

They see no irony when they say we need “changes” at the same time as “stability”.

It seems, so far at least, that the minister is not persuaded. Anne Milton is unconcerned about the numbers and doesn’t expect a dramatic increase in starts until September which is still less than a year and a half since the levy launched.

The minister is right to hold firm, as recent history has taught us that when a government panics over a funded recruitment target, it invariably messes the policy up.

Consider what happened to Train to Gain, a one-billion-pounds-a-year workplace training programme introduced when Gordon Brown was at the Treasury.

Less than a year after Train to Gain’s launch in 2006, the Labour government panicked that not enough employees were participating.

Without warning or piloting, they removed a key barrier by allowing all employees to be funded for a free level two qualification, even if they were already qualified at that level or above.

The consequences were as immediate as they were dramatic, and within a few months, the funding agency was admitting the budget was overspent, and providers had to stop recruiting.

Train to Gain was also dogged by new providers extracting as much funding from the system as quickly as they could delivering little to no training.

Ultimately Train to Gain will be remembered as £1 billion a year of additional funding for the FE sector which we quickly lost because the government and sector gave it neither sufficient time nor respect.

Surely we don’t want to repeat mistakes like this with the levy, which coincidently also adds an additional £1 billion to the FE sector pot?

Reformed apprenticeships are in their infancy, with many large employers (particularly in the public sector) still in the procurement and project development stage, hundreds of standards still in development and few end-point assessment organisations up and running.

It is too early to draw any solid conclusions about the success of the policy, and to make changes now may not only repeat mistakes of the past. Change would also undermine those calling for stability, ultimately damaging confidence in the system and long-term investment.

Even hinting that policy change may come would be a mistake, as providers and employers may change their behaviours in anticipation of something that may never happen.

We should all focus our energies on making a success of the new system we have, quickly stamp out any poor practice, being patient but also being upbeat about the fact that the apprenticeship fund has increased by more than a billion.

The outcome that nobody wants in policy terms is a knee-jerk reaction leading to mishandling of apprenticeship funding policy akin to Train to Gain.

As the philosopher, George Santayana famously wrote a little over 100 years ago: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”