None of the latest official apprenticeship statistics make for happy reading. Starts on the programme in England were just 27,000 last November, a staggering 40 per cent decrease on 12 months before.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) estimates that nearly 180,000 starts per quarter are now needed to hit the Government’s three million manifesto target, compared with the 110,000 that began in the last quarter.
Skills minister Anne Milton has defied the wishes of her civil servants by bravely stating that the numbers should be back on track by September 2018, and we hope she is right. But leaving aside that headline target, the real concerns should be the falling number of new apprenticeship opportunities for 16- to 24-year-olds and at intermediate and advanced levels (Levels 2 and 3). Since the levy reforms were introduced last May, the number of apprenticeship starts at Level 2 has halved, while starts for 16- to 18-year-olds have fallen by 38 per cent – and AELP is very aware that childcare is one of the sectors most adversely affected.
Apprenticeships have rarely been on the national media’s radar but they are taking an increasing interest in the levy because of its impact on big business and the falling start numbers. The vast majority of early years provision lies outside the scope of the levy, and the story of the programme reforms for non-levy-paying employers has probably been more controversial, which is very unfortunate when we are talking about a programme that will attract a billion pounds more funding in 2020 than it was a year ago.
For the 15-month period of January 2018 to April 2019, the Government has allocated an initial £450m for the apprenticeships of non-levy-payers, which is less than half of the 12-month budget allocated to them a year ago. The levy-payers also get first claim on taking back money from the levy pot, and therefore smaller businesses, including nurseries, are now a secondary priority in driving employer engagement with the programme.
The situation is made more challenging by the new requirement for the smaller employers to pay a 10 per cent financial contribution towards the cost of the training and assessment of apprentices. Training providers in the childcare sector are feeding back that many nurseries are finding this difficult to afford when they are already faced with the costs of introducing the 30 hours’ free childcare offer.
A second major challenge is the new rule which requires that at least 20 per cent of all apprenticeship training should take place off the job, which is the equivalent of a day a week. Nurseries are reporting that they simply cannot afford the cost of staff backfill to cover the absence of the apprentice doing this off-the-job training. Training providers can help plan the most flexible approach to off-the-job training, but for some standards the rule damages quality and training; it does not enhance it.
Another significant barrier to recruitment in the sector after the farcical Government delay in sorting out the recognition of functional skills in English and maths is the current delay in the publication of the new early years apprenticeship standard. Things seem to have gone very quiet over it, which is very frustrating for both training providers and settings.
The fall in Level 2 apprenticeship provision, the reduction in younger people starting an apprenticeship and the cut in allocated funding to small businesses represent a triple-whammy for the childcare sector. It also makes the Government’s claims to be championing social mobility sound fairly hollow, especially when the availability of affordable childcare is so crucial to allowing parents to make better lives for themselves.
We have heard enough excuses about the sharp fall in apprenticeship starts, and AELP has submitted a set of proposals for the Government to take immediate action in order to
rescue the reforms. The most important one for early years is that there should be no more employer contributions towards apprenticeships for 16- to 24-year-olds at non-levy-paying employers or at employers that have exceeded their levy.
The cuts in the funding available to train apprentices in non-levy-paying employers make no sense at all, and all Government-registered providers should immediately be given access to funding for all employers. There should be a guaranteed minimum funding level of £1bn for non-levy-paying employer apprenticeships to maintain levels at least at pre-levy volumes, and we need a flexible approach to off-the-job training at a standard-by-standard level recommended and monitored by individual trailblazers and Institute for Apprenticeships employer panels.
If ministers act swiftly, apprenticeships can make a real difference in the childcare sector.