The National Audit Office has warned that the government’s plan to deliver three million apprentices by 2020 could be plagued by historic mistakes, and said that no Plan B currently exists should the scheme fail. It also criticised the plans for not tying apprentice strategy to the actual needs of the real economy – a urgent need, given the UK’s widening productivity gap with its competitors.
The NAO today published its landmark report, Delivering value through the apprenticeships programme and made it clear that the apprenticeships plan needs to linked to the needs of the economy, perhaps by moving away from a raw numbers-based target to a real outcomes based approach that would address actual skills gaps where they occur.
For maximum benefit to the UK, the report states, there needs to be “a clear rationale for how apprenticeships fit into the wider plan for productivity and growth”.
‘Plans must address existing skills gaps’
So far, the NAO says, there is little evidence that the success criteria actually match up with the needs of the real economy. “There are no success measures in terms of, for example, how the programme is impacting on skills levels, addressing skills gaps or improving achievement rates,” the report says.
“[The] DfE has not set out how it will use the increase in apprenticeship numbers to deliver improvements in productivity, and in particular how the various trade‐offs will be managed in terms of cost and added value,” the report says, before going on to say that more work needs to be done on defining what success should look like.
“In order to derive the maximum benefit for the country as a whole, there should be a clear rationale for how apprenticeships fit into the wider plan for productivity and growth, including improving capital investment.”
This strategy should explain: the collective impact that the apprenticeships programme should achieve; the factors upon which such an impact is dependent; and how DfE plans to balance the drive for increased numbers with the need to support employers to deliver the apprenticeships that offer most value to the economy.
‘The right apprenticeships more important than a lot of apprenticeships’
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The Department for Education needs to chart and follow a course from having a lot of apprenticeships to having the right apprenticeships in order to help improve the UK’s productivity and achieve value for money, in return for the costs of the programme.”
Elsewhere, the report suggests that the current plans may also give rise to some unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to fraud and what it calls, ‘market abuse’.
The report suggests that “while the government “might reasonably expect the vast majority of employers, training providers and assessment bodies to act properly in response to reforms, a small minority may not behave as expected.”
The NAO said that most of the DfE’s risk-based work had centred on low take up numbers, but in fact other factors had to be looked at to ensure historical mistakes weren’t repeated.
“DfE now needs to expand its work on behavioural risks, and also ensure it learns lessons from previous initiatives which have not turned out as planned, such as Individual Learning Accounts.”
The NAO, as part of its recommendations, urged the DfE to “Do more to understand how employers, training providers and assessment bodies may respond to ongoing reforms, and develop robust ways of reacting quickly should instances of market abuse emerge.”
It also made a number of other suggestions, which included:
- Set out the planned overall impact on productivity and growth, along with short‐term key performance indicators to measure the programme’s success. DfE and the former Department for Business, Innovation & Skills have gained access to good data, and commissioned some valuable research. But beyond the target of 3 million new apprenticeship starts by 2020 it is not clear what constitutes ‘success’ for the programme.
- Ensure that the timescale for further development of Trailblazer standards remains realistic, and is well communicated to employers and providers. The timescale for implementing all of the new standards is a longer one than originally expected, extending the period during which new apprentices will continue to learn under the previous frameworks.
- Improve the way that it handles key risks, interdependencies and contingencies across the various elements of the programme. DfE has been slow to start treating the various initiatives as a coherent programme, and some elements of its risk management are still underdeveloped.
‘A ladder of opportunity’
Reaction to the report’s findings was mixed. Mark Dawe, chief executive of Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “The NAO is right to highlight that further progress is needed to manage the risks involved in the reform programme because if we don’t get the transition process right, there’s a real danger that quality of apprenticeships will be adversely affected.”
Meanwhile, Apprenticeships and Skills Minister Robert Halfon said: “Our apprenticeship reforms give young people a ladder of opportunity, provide employers with high quality apprentices and deliver real benefits to the economy.
“The new Institute for Apprenticeships will ensure that apprenticeships are even more closely tailored to the needs of employers.”