The apprenticeship levy came under renewed attack two weeks ago from former government adviser Tom Richmond. But, argues Sara Roberts, we need to cut the evolving system some slack. After all, it’s still very new.
The Runaway Training report, published earlier this month by educational thinktank EDSK and written by Michael Gove’s former adviser Tom Richmond, claimed that hundreds of millions of pounds were being spent on “fake” apprenticeships. I would like to argue that certain parts of this report are misleading and most of the levy is still being used for legitimate training.
The report simply doesn’t accept that either higher-level management or lower GCSE-equivalent qualifications should count as apprenticeships. What is and what is not an apprenticeship is a question worth asking, but the answer should not render the qualifications themselves illegitimate, as calling them “fake” implies.
Some have suggested that the two-year limit within which a company can spend its own levy contribution is causing some employers to rush spending the money on existing training. This may be true, to an extent, though the levy is meant to incentivise companies spending the money internally.
The value of management-level and higher apprenticeships is that, due to the mandatory minimum 12-month duration of apprenticeships, they teach skills and behaviours over time, rather than in a matter of days.
However, there are some courses being funded from the levy that probably are not appropriate. This is because the levy is so new (introduced in the 2017-18 tax year) and is likely to come to an end as employers realise that the 12-month minimum duration and 20% off-the-job training are not worth the saving in apprenticeship contributions.
It’s also worth noting that while the report identifies these courses as “already existing training”, this fails to account for the impact the levy itself has had on businesses’ finances. Many who could afford to pay for experienced staff to train and upskill previously no longer can, and so using the levy prevents the loss of these programmes altogether. Whether this is an appropriate use of the fund is ultimately for the government to decide.
The £3.90 minimum apprenticeship wage has been criticised as creating a way for employers to underpay staff without really offering them any training. There are always some people who try to abuse any system, but the levy is hopefully reducing these instances. The minimum apprenticeship wage is overwhelmingly paid to those under 19, who would otherwise not be being paid at all to receive training at college or university, with most employers at higher levels offering paying more, and being legally required to do so after the first year of an apprenticeship.
Many who could afford to pay for experienced staff to train and upskill previously no longer can, and so using the levy prevents the loss of these programmes altogether”
There have been suggestions that some money from the levy could be better spent, especially in the public sector. The government’s target of 2.3% of public sector employees to be apprentices by 2021 could be burdensome for a sector already struggling from underfunding; however, how money could be redirected effectively –and how fair businesses would consider it – is dubious. Perhaps there is a system by which some of the private sector levy could be redistributed to the public sector, but this seems likely to exacerbate the other problems outlined in the report.
There is still work to be done on improving the quality of apprenticeships and ensuring that the programme is working to its full potential. Saying that, we must allow time for the positive impacts of apprenticeships to begin making themselves felt while also encouraging those businesses still reluctant to use the levy to recognise the advantages good apprenticeships can provide for everybody.