Election priorities: Fixing the apprenticeship levy by Jill Whittaker OBE


Apprenticeships are already a hot topic for this year’s general election. The Prime Minister’s announcement of 100,000 new apprenticeships is the first of many suggestions of how the Government plans to support and upskill our nation. But as many have already alluded to, the announcement fails to acknowledge the much-maligned apprenticeship levy or how they aim to tackle the falling uptake in apprenticeships. 

In the seven years since the levy was introduced, it has come under much criticism and has been blamed for the fall in apprenticeship numbers. To some extent this is true, with total apprenticeship starts falling by 32% between 2016/17 and 2022/23. However, while the levy isn’t perfect, it’s not the only factor. And there are several things we can do to make the levy fit for purpose. 

Back in August 2012, a twelve-month minimum duration was mandated for apprenticeships to counteract the very short programmes offered by a few unscrupulous organisations. This measure was excessive, as many individuals, particularly those with prior work experience, can complete entry-level apprenticeships in less than 12 months. This extension has been unpopular with both hospitality employers and apprentices. The twelve-month minimum programme length is written in law, but the rule should be amended to allow previous experience, assessment time, and initial setup to count towards this minimum duration.

Around the same time as the levy was introduced, the old apprenticeship system was replaced by apprenticeship standards, which mandate 20% off-the-job training. This change was also unpopular with employers, who believe they should determine the training delivery method, whether on-the-job or off-the-job. Rightly so – employers know what is best for their apprentices, so they should be allowed to decide the balance of on-the-job and off-the-job training.

On top of this the new apprenticeship standards, developed by employer groups known as Trailblazers, are inflexible. They prevent training providers from being paid for front-loaded or block work, allowing only even payments across the programme duration. This system is unsuitable for seasonal programmes, as breaks in learning count against training providers in the government’s management system. Additionally, there is no option to build a full apprenticeship through modules, excluding many individuals with complex work/life patterns (i.e. most of us!). The system should be revised to pay training providers for work done, enabling them to collaborate with employers to create front-loaded or irregular study schedules that fit around the workplace.

End-point assessment is another element that is disliked by employers of apprentices. Apprenticeships are work-based study programmes that develop competency over time, yet the current system assesses competency only at the end. Competency should be assessed progressively throughout the programme, not just at the end. A costly mini-industry has emerged around end-point assessment, but it is not seen as adding value.

For many employers, the absence of a national government funded alternative has seen the financial necessity to convert their existing training schemes to apprenticeships to use their levy budget. While this is effective in some cases, it often results in staff not completing their programmes. Apprenticeships encompass all skills, knowledge, and behaviours required for any role. Therefore, modularising the programme, allowing employers to choose the components their staff need, makes sense for those who don’t require the entire apprenticeship. Modules can be individually certificated and might eventually lead to a full apprenticeship if needed. This simple flexibility would make a significant difference for employers who need staff to be upskilled quickly.

The Apprenticeship Service (formerly the Digital Apprenticeship Service, or DAS) is cumbersome and inflexible, necessitating employers to register and approve apprenticeship starts through the system. This added administrative burden is generally unwelcome. Allowing apprenticeship training providers to manage the system on behalf of employers, if desired, could alleviate this issue.

Finally, apprenticeships are the only adult study programmes requiring successful passes in both English and maths for completion, which deters many people. We need to evaluate the English and maths requirements for each apprenticeship and tailor them to the job role. Industry-led Trailblazer groups could oversee this to ensure alignment with sector needs.

Conclusion

To summarise, introducing these flexibilities and some relatively small changes would significantly improve the system for everyone involved. The upcoming election presents a potential catalyst to reform the apprenticeship levy by introducing these flexibilities, enabling more people of all ages to access high-quality training needed by both levy and non-levy paying employers. This is essential to create a system that supports the success of businesses and the future of the economy.

 


HIT Training Launches Suite of Training Courses and Workshops to Upskill Hospitality Teams

HIT Training Ltd Receives ‘Good’ Ofsted Rating for 14th Consecutive Year

Protecting the Future of the Sector: Hospitality Businesses Pledge to Fund Apprenticeships Outside Their Organisation

Sign up to news, events and great resources