This morning we’ve seen the latest statistical release on apprenticeship starts. Whilst better than the previous quarter, they are still down on this time last year. Cue a predictable response from across the spectrum.
In the modern media, hysterical gets heard. Calm balance won’t drive the clicks. This culture of high-pitched squealing for attention infects the tone of our political debate.
For the employment and skills sector, this has really negative consequences – as it creates unnecessary pressures in a system that’s already being pressed hard.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the noise surrounding the apprenticeship levy. Recent highlights include:
And then, of course, the news today.
Sector talking heads aren’t always helpful either. Change is hard, big change is even harder. Sometimes it’s easier to either bury your head in the sand or argue that the world should go back to being just how it used to be.
In the middle of all of the noise, here are five truths about the apprenticeship levy that we need to keep telling ourselves and the rest of the world.
The apprenticeship levy represents the best opportunity to revolutionise workplace training in a generation.
UK plc has suffered from decades of under-investment in staff development and training. There are a whole host of reasons for this, not worth recounting here. As we head into the economic headwinds of Brexit, one of the biggest challenges we face is flat-lining productivity. The apprenticeship levy creates clear incentives for businesses of all sizes to invest in workforce development – and gives them control of the training that they invest in. £3bn should represent the starting point – the principle of the levy gives policy makers the flexibility to increase the scope and scale of their investment partnership with UK business.
The government needs to stay the course, maintain a clear message and make it easy.
The current administration has few headline initiatives outside of delivering Brexit. The commitment to delivering 3 million new apprenticeships is a very measurable one. In the face of conflicting views and outbreaks of panic, the government needs to ‘keep calm and carry on’ and remain committed to the principles of the apprenticeship levy. It also needs to articulate a clearer public message about the purpose, scale and scope of the levy. At the same time, it needs to ‘get out of the way’ – by reducing bureaucracy and focusing on outcomes rather than process. Simpler funding and compliance requirements do not have to mean less robust.
The independent training sector needs to get a lot better at listening to employers, explaining the benefits to employers and delivering high quality training that employers really want.
The levy represents a fundamental change in the market for training providers. Providers need to quickly adjust to serving employers, rather than government, as their customers. They need to become more adaptable and flexible, delivering bespoke (and super high quality) provision – rather than off-the-shelf training packages. They need to listen to what employers need, rather than tell them what they can have. Most of all, they need to be the principal advocates of the apprenticeship levy – explaining how it works, demystifying it, making it simple and easy for employers and championing its benefits – rather than the principal critics.
Might it be harder to operate in the reformed market? Yes.
Is it possible to run a viable and successful training business if you deliver great training? Yes.
Might the market punish organisations that are low quality, low value and stuck in the past? Yes.
Is that fair? I’m afraid so.
There is more than enough money in the levy to support business growth and social impact.
£3bn is a significant uplift on the amount of funding available to support workforce development.There is more than enough money to support the training of both existing staff and new employees. There is more than enough money to deliver both high level management training and entry level vocational skills. At a stage when the levy pot remains under-spent, rather than over-spent, this is a particularly silly debate.
The quantity versus quality debate is a false dichotomy.
I can’t understand why some people maintain the position that 3 million apprenticeships necessarily has to mean poor quality apprenticeships. The proof that quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive bedfellows exists all around us – from tech giants like Apple, to retail businesses such as Tesco. Is there a risk that providers could ‘pile them high and sell them cheap’? Of course. Let’s not pretend that, historically, this wouldn’t be an accurate caricature of at least some of the apprenticeship training market. But a well managed market – with the right checks and balances in place from the ESFA and an educated and demanding employer customer base – should drive extremely high quality. We should be ambitious – so, why don’t we start challenging ourselves to deliver 3 million apprenticeships of the highest quality.
We’ve got a once in a generation opportunity to improve the quality and the reach of workforce learning in this country. We could carry on complaining about it. Or we can get on and make it happen. The choice is all ours.
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