When the National Audit Office, Public Accounts Committee and Select Committees eventually hold senior civil servants and Ministers to account for their approach during the pandemic, they will see little evidence with which to praise the approach taken to market resilience within the latest government guidance for English apprenticeships.
While government accepted that these are difficult times for employers, apprentices and providers of apprenticeship training and assessment, moving to protect the resilience of the newly created apprenticeship ‘market’ was tackled in an uncoordinated and pallid way. Within the decisions, employers saw:
- The statutory training Levy run by the Construction Industry Training Board, was paused to protect construction employers who were unable to train employees during social distancing and containment. But despite the precedent, HM Treasury announced they would continue to take the significant and almost unrecoverable Apprenticeship Levy money from wider employers.
- Most technical apprenticeship training and payments were effectively paused. At this point, government should have ensured that the 2 year expiry date for employers’ money within their digital accounts, simply tracked the pandemic. This would ensure that the timer stopped counting down unfairly, and incentivise employers which could make a flying start with their funds as soon as business recovery was possible. This fair and intellectually obvious measure was omitted, with government advising “There will no increase in the time available to employers to spend their levy funds, it remains at 24 months.”
- The consultation on the funding bands available to employers has been extended, but with an expectation already set out in advance that the amount of money available to recover for each apprenticeship will reduce. The utility employers with the Energy & Utility Skills Apprenticeship and Technical Education Advisory Group had already made clear in their Test & Adjust report that lowering funding recovery even further will be a clear disincentive, and leave employers no choice other than to test value for money and quality via in-house training rather than apprenticeships. In the research, employers had already communicated that they are investing approximately 50% towards the cost of training required anyway, and so would have to test whether investing in the apprenticeship programme remains the right training and development approach for their company.
- No structured protection or stewardship of the apprenticeship market interventions will take place, despite precedent set by other government departments and economic regulators in areas such as infrastructure.
- Major apprenticeship consultations were continued, but with the return deadlines extended by a few weeks. This however corresponded with many of those who would need to respond being in furlough, covering operational front line duties or already unemployed.
Chief Executive of Energy & Utility Skills, Nick Ellins, advised: “The UK government had already set out a clear mantra for the pandemic that they would do ‘whatever it takes’. While this bold and credible approach has been applied successfully in many areas and should be praised, vital apprenticeship policy and sustaining the newly created apprenticeship market that supports it, appears to have fallen through the cracks. No obvious thought leadership, long-term approaches or coherent stewardship is being applied. The National Audit Office, Public Accounts Committee and Select Committee must now scrutinise very carefully the departmental choices that were made during this exceptional incident, and judge whether the approach is sustainable, resilient and will honour the government commitment to make the whole Apprenticeship Levy and apprenticeship system employer-led. For the Better Regulation Executive and The Regulatory Policy Committee post incident, their task must be to establish whether the approach taken to the resilience of the newly created apprenticeship market by the responsible authorities, was robust and met Better Regulation Principles in action.”
“The utility sector has proved itself repeatedly as a high quality delivery partner since the very start of the apprenticeship reforms, helping Ministers to turn policy theory into employer practice by leading the way, overcoming the challenges through collaboration and graduating thousands of new and high quality talents into the UK labour market. To see the apprenticeship market in England left to drift, and the passion and commitment of these critical employers put at risk, requires a response. I strongly recommend that the UK re-boots its approach post-incident, to start one coherent UK labour market and workforce strategy. Vital areas such as apprenticeships should be managed differently; built in to a structured multi-nation human capital plan, that is tightly focused as part of meeting domestic and post European economic need and optimising the now constrained money that will be available. We have seen the weakness that using siloed approaches presents, and so the case for joining up thinking is compelling”