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Obfuscation and double-speak won’t solve the country’s skills crisis

By Prof. Tom Bewick, CEO, Federation of Awarding Bodies

At the Lifelong Education Institute conference on 28 March, Prof. Tom Bewick offered a retrospective on the apprenticeship levy, six years after its introduction. Here, he builds on his remarks to reflect on what needs to be done to make the apprenticeship system work better.

Readers of 1984, by George Orwell, will be familiar with the Ministry of Truth. On the outside of a dystopian-era government building, it reads: ‘War is Peace’, ‘Freedom is Slavery’, and ‘Ignorance is Strength’.

Of course, the real meaning of what the ministry does is about the ruling party in Orwell’s fictional society, ruthlessly holding onto power, by controlling the accepted narrative.

Thanks to iconic works of literature, like 1984, citizens today have a better understanding of malign forces in our demos, such as official propaganda.

It’s also known as political ‘double-speak’. And you’ll find lots of it in the current debate about skills and lifelong learning.

Take apprenticeships policy. The Department for Education has recently issued a ‘myth-busting’ blog which seeks to paint an incredibly rosy picture of apprenticeship performance in England.

Frustratingly, if the aim is to try and catch the government out, the preferred narrative is not wholly untrue. Rather, as Edmund Burke himself recognised in 1795, ‘as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth’.

The real problem with this superficial myth-busting approach is that it does very little to advance open debate; or to invite constructive criticism about how our apprenticeship system in England could be vastly improved.

Let’s look at some examples of ‘double-speak’ in action.

In response to a critical article by a national newspaper, the skills minister, Robert Halfon MP, waded into the debate:

‘More people under 25 are also turning to apprenticeships, and now make up more than half of all who take this route.

On the face of it, true. But what this statistic fails to take into account is that for the apprentices on programme today, more than two-thirds of them are already over the age of 25.

The stock of English apprentices is being confused here with the flow (i.e., new recent starts).

Meanwhile, the percentage of young people aged under-19 starting an apprenticeship in England since 2015/16 has declined from 131,420 to 77,520 in 2021/22 – a staggering fall of 41 per cent.

We need ministers to engage in the exodus of employers not offering young people these vital learn and earn entry routes into the productive labour market. It matters, because for all the talk of labour shortages and an incredibly tight jobs situation in the UK – 788,000 under 24-year-olds (10.6 per cent) found themselves not in education, employment or training at the end of 2022 (the highest figures recorded since the Covid-19 emergency in 2020).

So, where is the post-pandemic youth employment strategy to plug the nation’s skills gaps?

Obfuscation is evident with concerns about apprenticeship quality, as expressed in terms of programme achievement rates. The Ministry of Truth, based in Great Smith Street, SW1, has gone into full spin mode:

‘Around 92 per cent of apprentices go into work or further training, with 90 per cent in sustained employment.’

Given that 100 per cent of apprentices are, by definition, in employment from day one, it’s not really surprising that the employed status of successful apprentices is high. Also, the majority of apprentices are existing employees, before even starting on one of up to 650 recognised, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, programmes.

Perhaps the more revealing statistic is how many people drop out after starting an unsuccessful apprenticeship. The answer is 49 per cent. It compares to an undergraduate average drop-out rate of 6.4 per cent, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Surely a proper policy debate needs to be had as to why apprenticeship achievement rates have been going backwards since 2017. What is it about the complexity and design of the programme that is leading nearly half of apprentices in any given cohort, failing to complete, via an independent end-point assessment?

Meanwhile, the Department for Education has set out to improve the apprentice achievement rate from 51 per cent to 67 per cent by 2025.

Undoubtedly, the reasons for non-achievements will be myriad and complex. But equally, it may fundamentally be the case that employer and provider financial incentives are simply not-aligned as well as they could be.

The operation of the apprenticeship levy is a good case in point. The government appears to be in denial about the operation of what amounts to a deeply unpopular payroll tax.

A previously announced government review has already been abandoned.

One redeeming feature is that the Levy does raise substantial amounts from the largest firms, more than £3 billion per annum, that is then earmarked to spend UK-wide, via devolved government departments.

A downside is that 98 per cent of employers, who don’t currently pay the Levy, free-ride off those who do. In the context of overall declining firm-level investment in British employees – by 28 per cent since 2005 according to the Labour Force Survey (LFS) – it begs the question as to whether offering a free training lunch is always the only answer to tackling the country’s ‘low-skills equilibrium’.

And for the organisations in scope, with payrolls in excess of £3 million, the vast majority of these employers do appear largely uninterested in using apprenticeships to invest in the talent pipeline of young people and new entry jobs below graduate level.

It’s no wonder the cross-party House of Commons Education Select Committee, chaired by Robin Walker MP, has been so critical of apprenticeship policy and the government’s wider post-16 reforms.

The committee’s verdict was clear:

‘The Department must set out how it will address the long-term decline in apprenticeship starts among young people, and ensure apprenticeships are the gold- standard ‘earn and learn’ option for school and college leavers.’


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