Why 3 million is just a start

By: Nick Linford

Writing exclusively for NCFE

Thursday 11 May 2017


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When it comes to manifesto promises, the trick is to keep it simple and easy to measure whether the commitment has been achieved.  That’s what the Conservative manifesto got right with its pledge to fund 3 million apprenticeship starts during the parliament.

Now let me acknowledge this quickly.  An input target isn’t enough; it doesn’t have enough detail to address the important issues of access, quality, progression and so on.

But remember, the manifesto is aimed at the general public. It can’t spell out the intricacies of policy, but it works in the most basic test, it’s a measure that everyone can understand. And Mario Cuomo’s quote from 1984 could not be more apt: “you campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”  And while a numbers target may not look much like a poem, it is short and memorable.

It would be remiss of me not to mention again some of the important issues that can never be addressed by the soundbite approach that a manifesto must take.

There are issues around quality, both in terms of the duration of an apprenticeship, the quality of the training that is undertaken, the quality and now availability of apprenticeship assessment, etc. However, a manifesto is no place for these areas of detail.

We can all recognise that the simple promise to deliver 3 million apprenticeship starts has kept apprenticeships front and centre for the Conservative government and for the sector.

In order to deliver 3 million apprenticeships during the parliament, an average of 600,000 starts need to take place each year.  So how are we doing? 

Well, starts so far in this parliament are a little behind the curve. Starts for 2015/16 were a little under 510k and starts in each of the first two quarters of 2015/16 are down on their like for like numbers from the previous year.  However, full year apprenticeship starts have risen each year since 2013/14 and the true impact of the levy is yet to be felt.

But as we go into another election season, what manifesto commitments can we expect or should we want. As I outlined above, there is merit in sticking to a simple number target, not least as tracking this commitment requires data that is already collected, it doesn’t need another system or data return to generate it.  Given the level of change going on in the sector at that moment, that should be welcome.

I don’t think anyone reading this will need convincing that increasing numbers of quality apprenticeships is a bad thing. We’re all convinced about the central role apprenticeships can play in supporting social mobility.

The pledge by a Labour government to have 50% of young people progress to university is another one of these simple pledges that can do so much to bring attention to a topic.

Now while I don’t have the space here to debate that particular pledge, I do want to turn to a simple change that I think should be made to the apprenticeship target.

I think any starts target needs to include a minimum expectation for young people (either 16-19 or 16-23).  With the changes to the system enacted by the introduction of an ‘employer-owned’ apprenticeship levy and the revised funding system, it is easy to envisage a future where the number of apprenticeship starts by young people falls through the flaw.

The volume of apprenticeships in the 19+ age bracket has been consistently above 70% for some considerable time.  If there isn’t a protection in the target setting expectation for young people to take apprenticeships then we could see that balance tipped further.

Apprenticeships should support progression for the existing workforce, but it should surely prioritise new and young entrants.  Otherwise, we’re just creating the perfect conditions for another skills shortage in 5, 10 or 15 years’ time. 

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