Paul Irving, Managing Director, Skillswork

Firstly, let me apologise for the title of this article because if you are anything like me, I’m sure you will have by now reached the stage of uncontrollably articulating the four-letter vernacular each time you hear the words, 'strong and stable' in the same sentence.

However, I’m ashamed to say some of the brainwashing must have got through because I started to think about applying the concept of ‘strong and stable’ and ‘for the many and not for the few’ to apprenticeships and skills. At least, the brainwashing was politically balanced and it has provoked me to ask myself a couple of interesting questions.

Do you think the statement accurately describes the apprenticeship sector today?

If not, what would it take for us to get to the stage where both statements are true?

If the answer to the first question is simply yes then this is going to be a very short article indeed. But I’m sure most of us would accept that recent events particularly around non-levy apprenticeships illustrate what an unstable environment apprenticeships are currently operating within and it certainly doesn’t prescribe to the ‘for the many’ ethos.

To illustrate the point think about this; I have two sons, one left school and followed an apprenticeship route while the other is currently sitting his A Level exams. I can’t imagine my son’s 6th form college telling him “Sorry but you can’t study your A levels just now because we don’t have enough funding in our allocation but come back in January and we will see how it looks then." Whereas, at this moment in time that could be exactly the position my other son finds himself in.

I’m not sure how that fits with the 16-18 guarantee, at least not as I understand it. Perhaps, the guarantee now only applies to specific educational pathways. If so I must have been off the day of that particular policy briefing!

However, time to think a little more deeply about the non-levy allocation fiasco to answer the second question. What would it take for us to get to the stage where we can declare that we have, ‘Strong and stable apprenticeships that are for the many and not for the few.’

When I thought about it, the recently rushed inadequate allocations are not the underlying issue but a symptom. Probably, the most pronounced symptom in many years but a symptom none the less. The overriding issue in the skills sector is short-termism. Put simply, the one constant in this sector is change.

Whether it be from Train to Gain to Learning Loans, PLPs to Traineeships, 14-19 Diplomas to study programmes or simply, one year’s funding methodology to the next, the strategic and operational change has been relentless.

As anyone who has ever studied or been involved in change management will testify, excessive change will breed change fatigue. We’ve all heard a colleague who’s been around the sector for many years saying, “Oh don’t worry it will all come back round again” which generally means any positive impact the said change might have had is already diminished.

Another phrase I suspect we will hear frequently from politicians over the coming weeks is, “We are, where we are” and this is also true of apprenticeships. Don’t get me wrong I’m still enthused and excited by the apprenticeship reforms. I just wish the changes had been better considered, funded sufficiently and implemented over a sensible timescale but…….. ‘we are, where we are’.

Therefore, I believe now is the time for 6 months of positive action. Between now and January let’s get the Apprenticeship Service opened to all employers, so that we have a consistent approach for employers engaging with apprenticeship provision, make funds available to allow those providers on RoATP to get on with driving apprenticeship growth and as a sector, move from prescriptive frameworks to standards (where available) that will provide us with greater flexibility to deliver the skills businesses need.

If we can achieve this by January, what we then need is a longer-term skills strategy, not the next 2 years or the life of a parliament (which appears to be a little short term itself these days). We need an inter-generational skills strategy of which, apprenticeships in their current format form the core. There is no doubt in my mind that we have never been in a better position to get that long-term strategy or that there has never been a greater need for it, and the reason why can be summed up in two words. Levy and Brexit!

There have been many advantages discussed in terms of the Apprenticeship Levy, pushing the equality of the apprenticeship brand, increased business engagement, employers imbedding apprenticeships into CPD plans but for me the greatest advantage is that this is a business based tax, not a sector initiative, and I say that as a business owner.

It is very rare indeed to see a taxation policy removed. It might have the rate changed, scope broadened or allowance amended but it will be here to stay. Much like workplace pensions, it will establish itself and become another line on the FDs budget probably somewhere between Employer NI and Pension Costs.

This means the levy has already started creating more stability for the sector and when coupled with employers having increased involvement in the apprenticeship process, policy makers will find it much more difficult to constantly change direction because it won’t be just the provider base that will be affected but the broader business sector.

When we consider a post Brexit Britain, broadly speaking the biggest concern many of us have is the economy and ensuring we keep businesses and so jobs within the UK. If you ask any successful business what it values more than anything else, the answer will generally be the skills of its workforce. Therefore, the attraction for businesses of a low taxation Britain pales into insignificance against the attraction of a highly skilled Britain. Make no mistake skills will be pivotal to the success or failure of post-Brexit Britain.

Paul Irving, Managing Director of Skillswork

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