DfE lacks “clear rationale” for funding apprenticeship scheme

7 Sep 16

The Department for Education lacks a “clear rationale” to explain how an increase in apprenticeship numbers would benefit national productivity, according to the National Audit Office.

This is despite the government’s insistence that spending on apprenticeship schemes is needed to make the country more competitive, and claims that the investment would be quickly recouped.

The spending watchdog assessed the value for money afforded by the scheme, which has seen apprenticeship places more than double in the country in the past ten years to around 2.4 million. Most of this growth has come from those aged over 24 and in Level 2 apprenticeships.

In England, an apprenticeship is a full-time paid job, available to those aged 16 and over. It can incorporate on- and off-the-job training and leads to a nationally recognised certificate. Annual public funding of apprenticeships had grown to around £1.5bn by 2015-16.

The NAO recognised that the government was currently undergoing a period of change in how it managed apprenticeship schemes. In July this year, the Department for Education assumed full responsibility for apprenticeships. Previously, this role had been shared between the DfE and the then Department for Business Innovation & Skills.

However, it called for “clear rationale” for how apprenticeships fit into the wider plan of productivity and growth, and a strategy to explain the collective impact that the apprenticeships programme should achieve. Also, DfE needed to balance its commitment to increasing numbers with the need to support employers to deliver apprenticeships that offer most value to the economy.  

The report assessed the government’s plans to further expand the apprenticeship programme by pledging to create three million apprentices between 2015 to 2020, making the scheme increasingly employer-led, and boosting the proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic apprentices. 

According to the report, there were no success measures in place, in terms of how the programme was impacting on skill levels, addressing skills gaps or improving achievement rates. Without these metrics, the watchdog doubted whether it was possible to know whether the apprenticeship market was working properly.   

Auditor general Amyas Morse said that the quantity of apprenticeships wasn’t necessarily an indicator of success. He said: “The Department for Education needs to chart and follow a course from having a lot of apprenticeships to having the right apprenticeships in order to help improve the UK’s productivity, and achieve value for money, in return for the costs of the programme.”

A group of employers, known as Trailblazers, are developing a set of new apprenticeship standards with the government, which it is hoped will meet the needs of participants more effectively. But this process has been unexpectedly slow, with some employers claiming it has been carried out at their own expense.

Meanwhile, although employers were generally satisfied with the level of training given (86%), one-third of apprentices undertaking Level 2 and 3 schemes claimed to be unaware that the training they had received constituted an apprenticeships. Moreover, one in five reported they had received no training at all, either at a provider or in the workplace. The report also cites Ofsted findings that suggest around one fifth of training providers needed to improve the quality of the training they provide. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, Britain is around one-third less productive than Germany, France and the US. This has been attributed to less of an emphasis on technician and higher-level vocational training. Successive governments have attempted to incentivise companies to fund apprenticeship training in the hope of bridging the gap.

Responding to the report, apprenticeships and skills minister Robert Halfon said: "Our apprenticeship reforms give young people a ladder of opportunity, provide employers with high quality apprentices and deliver real benefits to the economy.

"We are giving employers more power than ever before to design apprenticeships that are rigorous, robust and world class.

"The new Institute for Apprenticeships will ensure that apprenticeships are even more closely tailored to the needs of employers."

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