At the very time when it has never been more important for Britain to invest in the skills of young people and businesses, the Government have introduced a scheme which sets back both the quality and quantity of apprenticeships on offer. Tom Hayes Oxford City Councillor for St. Clement's Ward 5th March 2018 With National Apprenticeship Week beginning today, everyone involved in this area will be joining together this week to celebrate young people learning skills and businesses becoming more productive. But while celebrating the progress made, we also need to be realistic about the barriers that all too often prevent apprenticeships from being the easily-accessed, respected and rigorous pathway into skilled careers that our whole economy needs them to be. In their 2015 and 2017 manifestos the Conservatives set the target of 3 million young people starting apprenticeships by 2020. But, as the scheme hits the half-way point to 2020, it’s clear that the Government are missing their own target. And they’re missing that target because fundamentally, they’ve missed the point of apprenticeships themselves. Apprenticeships should give people training, skills and experience for a career, not a one-off job. They need to be high-quality and seen as equal alternatives to university degrees. In April 2017 the Government introduced the Apprenticeship Levy, a major change which on the surface looks like a positive step in that direction. But the sad reality is that in a scramble to grow headline numbers at all costs, the quality of apprenticeships has been watered down and numbers taking them up are in reverse. Under the Levy, larger UK businesses with an annual payroll bill of more than £3m have to pay 0.5% of their payroll into a fund each month. Those smaller than that have to pay an upfront contribution of 10% of the cost of training an apprentice, and allow apprentices to spend a day a week from the workplace for training. Too many large employers are still trying to understand the complex rules and, as a result, have pressed the pause button on their apprenticeship plans. For businesses too small in size and too busy to overcome the large amount of bureaucracy involved, the levy is unfit for purpose. The result is that at the halfway point, the government’s target of 3m apprenticeships seems further away than ever. Latest figures show that in the seven months since the launch of the levy, the numbers beginning a new apprenticeship dropped by 40%, compared with the same seven months in 2016. To hit their target, the Government would need to add at least 50,000 apprenticeship starts per month—a level it has only ever managed three times since May 2015. But not only is the Government failing on the numbers, it’s failing to prevent a steady slide in the skill level of apprenticeships on offer. This undermines their viability as a credible alternative to a university degree. Currently, 42% of new apprenticeship starts are at Level 3, the equivalent to A Levels, rather than Levels 4,5,6 and 7, which are equivalent to foundation degrees or higher. And of those apprenticeships, it’s not even clear how many are completed. The Government figures only measure starts, not completions The target of 3m young people starting apprenticeships by 2020 looks even flimsier when you consider that existing figures count all adults, irrespective of age. Last year one in four apprenticeship starts were aged under 19—but, equally, one in four were aged 35 and over. It’s time for the Government to get real and start chasing outcomes for young people, not just headlines. It has never been more important for Britain to invest in the skills of young people and businesses. That means measuring the things we actually value—such as the actual completion of apprenticeships (not their starts) and only counting young people towards any target for young people. We also need to value what we measure—that means improving the levy by ring-fencing a significant sum for small and medium-sized firms, increasing the standards of apprenticeships, and opening up flexible and part-time apprenticeships for those with caring responsibilities. There isn’t a problem today that doesn’t have a co-operative answer, and that’s the case with apprenticeships. A co-operative approach to apprenticeships could involve small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) in an important sector sharing responsibility for an apprentice’s training, rather than shouldering responsibility for accessing the funding and tackling confusing rules around taking on apprenticeships on their own. Brokers and organisers such as Co-operative Party councillors in local government and community colleges can play a key role in fostering co-operation in key sectors likely to be damaged by a hard Brexit—that is, construction, caring, and hospitality. Across the country, Co-operative councillors are showing the value in taking the bull by the horns and proactively creating connections within their local economies. Encouraging co-operative approaches by local small businesses (in apprenticeships and much else beside) is another opportunity to do so. But to do this, we need a more flexible approach to financing apprenticeships for SMEs from Government. Governments make a big difference. The last Labour Government’s approach to getting more people into work, with programmes like the New Deal, shows what can be achieved by incentives, regulatory changes, and welfare reform, and support for specific groups. With the quality of employment, not the level of employment, now a more important policy challenge, we need to innovate new solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow. If we don’t, we’ll see more of the status quo—many thousands of young people up and down the country struggling with squeezed pay in insecure work. If we do, we could see stronger, fairer communities all over Britain.