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Apprenticeship system needs radical reform in order to succeed, says CIPD

Radical reforms are needed to raise the quality of apprenticeships and ensure they are regarded as a genuine alternative to university, highlights a new report from the CIPD.


The findings are based on a collection of essays written by a range of experts on vocational training that explore the deep-lying problems around apprenticeship provision in the UK.


These weaknesses mean that six in every ten apprenticeships created in the UK are only at Level 2, equivalent to just GCSE five passes. In addition, the percentage of apprenticeship starts for people aged under 25 has dropped significantly from 99.8% of all apprenticeships to 57% in the last decade, while just one fifth of starts at Level 3 were reserved for 16-24 year olds in 2014-15.


The CIPD’s report shows that while the number of under-25-year olds starting an apprenticeship has increased by 24% since 2010, the number of over-25s increased by 336%. The number of over-60s grew by 753%, from just 400 in 2009–10, to 3,410 in 2014–15.


The report finds that the use of apprenticeships to meet the training needs of low-paid (and typically older employees) undermines their role as a structured route into skilled work for those entering the labour market for the first time.


In response, the CIPD, and essay authors, recommend that the new Apprentices and Skills Minister, Robert Halfon MP, and his team should consider how the Government, working in partnership with employers and training providers can deliver a step change in the number of advanced and higher level apprenticeships for young people, as well as differentiating the content of apprenticeships for typically older, existing employees from those for young people.


The CIPD paper also concludes that the Government’s target of achieving three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 and the planned introduction of an apprenticeship levy in its current form, are likely to further undermine apprenticeship quality.


While recent reforms, including requiring apprenticeships to have a minimum duration of 12 months, more on and off-the-job training and a new assessment system are welcome, they are unlikely to address the underlying weaknesses in the apprenticeship system, according to the report.


Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said, “This in-depth analysis of the UK's apprenticeship system suggests there is still a long way to go before the majority of apprenticeships in the UK really do provide a meaningful, high-quality vocational pathway into employment that is a genuine alternative to university.


“The focus on hitting the three million target threatens to further undermine quality, and, while the new Trailblazer frameworks have enabled some employers to develop bespoke apprenticeships that suit their skills needs, they are unlikely to be expanded beyond a relatively small proportion of typically larger organisations.


“The report also makes clear that if we are to have an apprenticeship levy at all then we will need to make it far more flexible, otherwise we risk undermining the quality of apprenticeships further. The CIPD has already called for a delay in the introduction of the levy because we are concerned that rushing it through will have damaging, unintended consequences.


“We are also concerned about the provision of apprenticeships for young people. The Government needs to do more to ensure that young people looking for alternative pathways into the workforce can access advanced and higher level apprenticeships.


“Over time, we need to evolve into a system which has a strong institutional framework to help raise the bar for employer ambitions if there really is to be an increase in the quality of skills development and apprenticeships programmes.


“We need to build more strategic partnerships between education and training providers and employers at a local level, which are focused on ensuring learners develop the skills employers need both now and as skills requirements change.”


Tess Lanning, editor and contributor to the report, commented, “When government ministers talk about creating three million apprenticeships, most people assume that they mean high quality training routes into skilled jobs for young people entering the labour market for the first time.


“Yet, in reality, an increasing proportion of ‘apprenticeships’ are, in fact, low-level programmes that accredit the existing skills of older employees already competent in their jobs, some of them approaching retirement. In too many cases apprenticeships are in low-paid, low-skilled jobs and offer little or no actual training or wage returns.


“Recent ministerial changes are an opportunity to rethink the current approach and build a system that makes quality training for young people a real priority.”


The report suggests three key areas policy makers need to focus on to achieve better outcomes for learners, employers and the economy:

  • A shift from a market-led system focused on the narrow needs of individual employers towards a more co-ordinated approach that meets the broader needs of learners and the economy.


  • The creation of a strong institutional framework to support collective commitment by employers and training providers to raising the quality of skills and apprenticeships. A first step towards this might be to rationalise and invest in the Government’s Trailblazer initiative. This might involve creating a Trailblazer for each broad occupation or sector tasked with developing a much smaller range of broader qualifications that seek to enable progression and mobility in the economy, rather than the current focus on access to a particular job role.


  • Enhanced partnerships at a local level between training providers and employers to help improve the quality of apprenticeship provision, including among low-skilled, female-dominated industries such as care and food services.

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