Mick Fletcher of the Policy Consortium reads between the lines.
It is always important when reading government papers to look for the sub text as well as at the surface but in the case of the recently concluded consultation on apprenticeship funding one needs to dig particularly deep. The paper is overtly concerned with what is termed ‘employer ownership’ of skills and is focussed around the proposition that employers would show a greater degree of engagement with apprenticeships if public funding was routed to them directly rather than through providers as at present. It asks a number of theoretical questions about whether such a move would improve employer motivation, and then, assuming the answer is in the affirmative, proposes three technical options – routing money through a new IT system, using PAYE, or adopting a modified version of the provider route. The status quo is not presented as an option.
One can argue with the paper at a number of levels and it has attracted significant opposition. It has united colleges and training providers in pointing out the risks inherent in such a dramatic change and provoked a detailed and well-reasoned critique from the pressure group Edge. Almost the only significant organisation to come out in support has been the UK Commission for Employment & Skills, which is where the ideas appear to have originated; and their ‘prospectus’ making the case for the PAYE system is more of a promotional glossy than a reasoned case.
The principal objection to routing money via employers is that it seems more likely to deter small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) than to promote their engagement. There is no evidence that they want to take on the task of administering funding and ample evidence that many are allergic to any involvement with government. Any steps taken to ensure public money is not abused would be seen as red tape and discourage involvement; but to abandon controls would court disaster.
There are other worries as well. The need for a new government IT system is always cause for concern. It is not clear how control over the total amount of public spending could be maintained if, as planned, all employers are eligible, yet the idea of SMEs bidding for a provisional allocation is wildly unrealistic. In view of the very many obvious difficulties one needs to ask if there are other issues in play.
One possibility is that the paper is really about mandatory cash contributions from employers; the paper assumes that employers will only get public funding, by any of the possible routes, if they first stump up cash. The requirement for payment up front is clear in the paper but there are no questions about it; it is assumed as a given. Ministers do not explain how requiring employers to pay for what most have had until now for free will expand participation but perhaps they are not concerned.
Under the surface, however, there is an even bigger issue. The Minister for Skills and Enterprise, Matthew Hancock, was forced to admit on an FE Week webinar recently that government was contemplating mandatory employer contributions for 16–19 apprentices, currently fully funded by the state. One can imagine the uproar if, during a consultation on school funding, government had not admitted it was contemplating charging fees for school sixth forms.
Given the number of apprentices aged 16–19 is in long-term decline the need for SMEs both to engage with the complexities of public funding and to pay for what has always been free could deliver the coup de grace. It is impossible to see such a change as increasing the availability of apprenticeships for this age group, so what might possibly lie behind it? One thought has to be that some in government have privately given up on apprenticeships at this age and are looking to move public funding towards 19–24 year olds.
A hint that this might be the case comes from the fact that some apprenticeship providers have already been calling for more support for 19–24 year olds, maintaining that employers find the disjuncture between 100% support at 18 and 50% funding at 19+ difficult to understand. A possible way forward for the Skills Funding Agency might be to ‘harmonise’ contributions at, say, 70% for 16–24 year olds. (The figure of 70% is, by co-incidence of course, the figure used ‘for illustrative purposes only’ in the consultation document.) It would clearly suit the National Apprenticeship Service if it could move money it can’t spend on 16–18 year olds to boost employer involvement in the 19–24 phase and it just might be that the consultation is really seeking to find a way around the small problem that 16–19 funding belongs to the Department for Education, not the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.The Policy Consortium on Twitter