All new apprenticeships for 16- to 18-year-olds will last for at least one year, as part of a series of reforms aimed at strengthening apprenticeships announced yesterday by skills minister John Hayes.
Within the new measures, the Government has pledged to monitor more closely employers that run apprenticeship schemes, ensuring that the programmes include a rigorous amount of "job-relevant" learning and training. Public funding could be withdrawn from providers whose apprenticeships fail to meet quality standards.
The National Apprenticeship Scheme (NAS), run by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), will ensure that apprenticeships offer a solid framework for apprentices to learn their chosen trade, and will work with the Skills Funding Agency to clamp down on schemes that are not offering the right sort of training provision.
The NAS will also look into the implications of extending the 12-month requirement to apprenticeships for those above the age of 18.
Hayes said: "With more employers and more apprentices involved in the programme than ever before, we will continue to raise standards and ensure the high quality of every apprenticeship. My resolve is to ensure every penny of public money delivers high-quality training, and continue to weed out failure and fraud wherever it is found to exist."
After announcing an increase in the take-up of apprenticeships in November - numbers for 2010/11 rose by 58% compared with the full 2009/10 academic year - BIS attracted accusations that too much of the funding available for apprenticeship schemes was being targeted at older, existing employees rather than offering a vital first step on the career ladder for young unemployed people. For the past two months, figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown youth unemployment to be in excess of one million.
More rigorous monitoring of the quality and content of apprenticeship schemes will be welcome. A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that some schemes lasted as little as 12 weeks, and that many apprenticeship providers were offering the schemes to train staff in lower-skill, service-industry roles that would suit a more basic training programme, as opposed to the more rigorous schemes offered in higher-skill industries such as engineering.
In November 2011, the Government also announced incentives for smaller firms to take on their first apprentices, as well as the creation of 19,000 degree-level apprenticeships through the Higher Apprenticeships Fund. BIS has also opened up a £250 million fund to give employers more control over how apprenticeship training is delivered, as most schemes are currently controlled by training providers, which access the funding on employers' behalf.
Announcing the new measures in a parliamentary debate on apprenticeships, Hayes also said that the Government would remove some of the barriers to appointing apprentices for small and medium-sized companies by reducing the time it takes to set up and advertise a vacancy, and by removing some of the additional health and safety requirements that are not part of overall health and safety legislation. It will also require that apprentices have a level 2 qualification in English or Maths in order to complete the apprenticeship.
According to Katerina Rudiger, skills adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the measures place more control into employers' hands, rather than those of training providers, and that will help drive up quality in apprenticeship provision. "The proposals around employee ownership of apprenticeships are the way forward," she said. "Employers designing their own training means they will want to ensure they are relevant and of a high quality."
Rudiger added that, while the raft of recent announcements were a step forward in improving the perception of apprenticeships both among employers and potential participants, there was still much to do to enhance their reputation. "There is a stigma around apprenticeships; a perception that any vocational training is a route for low performers. But more young people will come forward if they think this is a better-quality route into an occupation than higher education." Schools also needed to be more proactive in advertising apprenticeship routes to bright students, she added.
Last year, Hayes used his blog to predict that the Government would "create more apprenticeships than Britain has ever seen". Given the raft of announcements made in the latter quarter of this year, it looks like his prediction could become a reality.