Reforming the Apprenticeships Programme in England (2010–2015)
David Cameron's coalition government came to power committing to support the creation of apprenticeships as part of its wider programme to “Get Britain Working”. The government aimed for a total of 203,000 adult apprenticeships in England in the 2010/11 financial year, an increase of 50,000 on the previous year. They expected this to bring general economic benefits and to improve outcomes for those who undertook apprenticeships.
In the UK, apprenticeships are a devolved power. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland apprenticeships are the responsibility of their respective devolved governments. In England, an apprenticeship is a full-time paid job, incorporating on- and off-the-job training. As part of the vocational education system, they are available to over-16s and lead to a nationally recognised certificate. Apprenticeships are available at various educational levels and take at least one year to complete - longer for higher qualifications.
Throughout the 2010-2015 parliament, the coalition government worked to increase the quality and number of apprenticeships and introduced a number of new reforms and programmes. In 2010 they released the Skills for Sustainable Growth strategy document outlining plans to increase the number of apprenticeships. The Education Act 2011, one of the key initiatives from this period, placed a duty on government to fund apprenticeships for young people who had already secured a place and to make reasonable efforts to ensure employers offer apprenticeships. The 2012 Statement on Apprenticeship Quality introduced minimum standards for certain aspects of apprenticeships. These included a minimum length of 12 months, 280 hours of guided learning, a minimum week of 30 hours, strengthened monitoring and reporting processes and the introduction of apprenticeship agreements between apprentices and employers.
According to Office for National Statistics, the UK's working-age population was less skilled in 2010 than those in France, Germany and the US, contributing to the UK being at least 15 percent less productive than those countries. To remain competitive, the British economy needed more people with intermediate and higher skills.
Young people also suffered disproportionately from unemployment as a result of the Great Recession (2007-2009), with those unemployed in their youth more likely to be unemployed throughout their lives.
The public impact
The reforms successfully increased the number of apprenticeships in England. Between 2009/10 and 2014/15, the number of people starting an apprenticeship each year increased by:
- 9,000 (3 percent) for those aged under 19;
- 46,000 (40 percent) for those aged 19-24; and
- 165,000 (337 percent) for those aged 25 and over.
The 2015 employer survey conducted by the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills found 86 percent of employers were satisfied with the quality of the training offered and 75 percent of employers reported that apprenticeships improved productivity. However, these findings were similar to those of surveys in previous years.
At least 90 percent of apprentices were satisfied with their training. Only 6 percent of apprentices said their apprenticeship was intended to last for fewer than 12 months, down from around one in two in 2012. However, one in five apprentices said they had not received any formal training, either in the workplace or at an external provider.
The government consulted widely before publishing the 2010 Skills for Sustainable Growth strategy document, which set out the coalition's investment strategy for further education and skills. Consultees included businesses, employers, individuals, colleges, training providers, charities and social enterprises as well as representative organisations such as professional bodies and trade associations. Overall:
- 564 submissions were made online in response to the consultation documents;
- more than 180 employers and providers attended stakeholder events to share their experience of the further education and skills system; and
- more than 50 individual further education learners shared their views and experiences in an online panel.
The changes to the apprenticeship scheme under the Conservative leadership between 2010-2015 received broad support from colleges, training providers and Apprenticeship Training Agencies, which recruit, employ and arrange training for apprentices on behalf of employers. However, some employers felt that there was no real consideration of how the reforms “might work on the shop-floor”. In particular, small to medium-enterprises were concerned about the requirement for a minimum of 280 hours of guided learning.
The coalition government made apprenticeships a priority. The 2010 Coalition Agreement stated that the government would support the creation of apprenticeships as part of its wider programme to “Get Britain Working”. The Conservative Party ran on a platform of creating 400,000 work pairing, college and training places over two years. The commitment to boost the apprenticeship scheme in the UK across all sectors of the economy was shared by all major political parties following the 2010 General Election.
Throughout the 2010-2015 parliament, the government continued to develop and implement a number of reforms to boost the number and quality of apprenticeships, demonstrating an ongoing political commitment to this objective.
There is no direct survey on the public's opinion of UK apprenticeship policy, although surveys of employers and apprentices demonstrate a good level of satisfaction overall with the system.
According to Ipsos MORI, one of the UK's leading market research companies, education was one of the top three election issues in the lead-up to the 2010 General Election. Further research suggests that vocational education was gaining recognition among parents in the same period. A 2014 survey of >3500 parents by YouGov highlighted that 72 percent of parents felt apprenticeships were just as useful as a university degree in finding career success .
Clarity of objectives
The government set itself the goal of creating a world-class skills base to provide a source of competitive advantage. Targets were set to increase the number of adult apprenticeships. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills developed very clear objectives for apprenticeships for young adults aged 19 and over. The Department's 2010 document, Skills for Sustainable Growth, stated:
We will expand the numbers of adult Apprenticeships available by up to 75,000 by 2014-15, leading to more than 200,000 people starting an Apprenticeship each year. To fund this, we will increase investment in Apprenticeships by up to £250 million over the spending review period. There will be investment of £605 million in 2011-12 and an indicative budget of £648 million in 2012-13.
On the other hand, the Department of Education produced no projections for the number of 16- to 18-year-olds joining the apprenticeship programme. There is no evidence of clear, quantifiable objectives being set at the outset.
The government also committed to improving the quality of apprenticeships for all age groups. The 2012 Statement on Apprenticeship Quality set out the requirements for a high-quality delivery model. However, the clarity of the objectives was not consistent across the various requirements. Clear standards were set for the minimum number of employment hours, the duration of the apprenticeship and the minimum wage, for example, but there were no clear criteria set for determining whether an apprentice was engaged in a job with a “productive purpose”.
Strength of evidence
The policies to increase the number of apprenticeships implemented the Conservative Party's 2010 manifesto commitment, which made reference to the failings of the previous government's policies. While there is evidence of apprenticeships playing an important role in boosting skills development abroad, it is unclear what evidence was used to inform the 2010 commitment to increase the number of apprenticeships.
However, the minimum standards introduced in 2012 through the Statement on Apprenticeship Quality responded to recommendations made in a number of reviews and policy documents. These included the 2011 Wolf Report, the 2012 Richard Review, and a 2012 review by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills select committee. These reviews raised various concerns about England's apprenticeship system, which included apprenticeships being too short and there being insufficient focus on off-the-job education, as well as issues around fraud and bad practice. In response, the government introduced a minimum length of 12 months, a requirement of 280 hours of guided learning and a minimum week of 30 hours along with strengthened monitoring and reporting processes and the introduction of apprenticeship agreements between apprentices and employers.
The government was clear about its financial commitment to increase the number of apprentices. At a time of austerity and against a background of fiscal bottlenecks this clearly signaled its determination to fully implement the policy. Annual funding grew from £1.2 billion in 2010/11 to around £1.5 billion in 2015/16. 
The legal framework for the new apprenticeship policy was set out in the Education Act 2011. However, the rapid spike in apprenticeships seen in the early years of the Cameron government raised concerns about the quality of apprenticeships. This in turn led to the introduction of a number of minimum standards in 2012.
However, some small businesses were concerned that the additional requirements introduced through the Statement on Apprenticeship Quality were not practicable and could in fact prevent them from hiring apprentices. Some college providers also felt that the additional learning requirements would make it harder to persuade employers to take on adult apprentices.
Management roles were already established prior to the government's reforms and appear to have been clear. Management of the apprenticeship programme was split between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which leads on adult apprenticeships for those aged over 19 years of age, and the Department for Education, which leads on apprenticeships for those aged 16 to 19 years of age. The National Audit Office concluded that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills learned lessons from its management of the former “Train to Gain” programme, leading to a better-managed apprenticeship programme.  However, it remains unclear why the coalition government maintained the division of apprenticeship policy between two departments, something the Conservatives had criticised in 2007.
The National Apprenticeship Service has overall responsibility for the management of the programme and is the single contact point for employers and apprentices. The Skills Funding Agency supports the service by providing operational functions, including managing relationships with training providers.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has published an annual Evaluation of Apprenticeships since 2012, the first evaluation covering 2011. The evaluation is an official research paper. It details the profiles and characteristics of apprentices and examines employer and apprentice perspectives. The evaluation is based on a quantitative research conducted among 4,000 employers and 5,000 apprentices who took part in the apprentice scheme in the preceding 18 months. The respondents are pre-selected to be a representative sample. This annual evaluation provides a regular review of the apprenticeship policy and its findings have created a basis for later policy reforms.
Employers are asked about their motivation for employing apprentices, the additionality and impact on their businesses, their satisfaction with the co-operation between providers and the National Apprenticeship Service, and their future plans for further deployment of apprentices in their companies.
Apprentices are asked about their satisfaction with the scheme and with the work of providers, the perceived impact on skills and future employability, and their motivation for continuing education.
There was a wide consensus among policymakers and stakeholders on the need to boost apprenticeships across the country as a way to improve the skills of the British workforce. Apprenticeships were seen as the primary work-based learning route. Apprentices generally viewed their apprenticeship as having a strongly positive impact on their skills and abilities. Four-fifths of apprentices believed that their apprenticeship had improved their ability to do their job and 84 percent believed that it had provided them with skills or knowledge of benefit within their current or desired area of work. Similarly, 80 percent of employers with recent completers remained committed to apprenticeships and planned to continue to offer them.
The National Apprenticeship Week, which has taken place every March since 2008, is one example of how the government has been trying to align key stakeholders. The week “is designed to celebrate apprenticeships and the positive impact they have on individuals, businesses and the wider economy”. Other awareness-raising events regularly take place supported by local authorities, business organisations and MPs from the given constituencies.
Not all employers have aligned with the government's aims, however. The large increase in the number of apprentices over the age of 25 in the first years of the Cameron government was largely driven by employers seeking government funding for workplace training. The reported increase in apprenticeships may also represent, at least in some instances, low-level workplace training programmes being rebadged as apprenticeships.
The complexity of the system and lack of coherent and consistent information discouraged small and medium-sized enterprises from hiring apprentices. To overcome this barrier, the government introduced the Apprenticeship Grant in 2012, which paid £1,500 to small businesses hiring a young apprentice if the firm had not done so before.
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