We will be ready to deliver apprentice reforms – Halfon

Skills minister Robert Halfon has told MPs that despite fears over their delayed application, apprenticeship assessments will be ready in time.

Speaking to the parliamentary Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy this morning, Halfon said: “Even where there isn’t an assessment organisation yet, we’re pretty sure that by the time they’ve finished their apprenticeship, which could be on year, two years, they will have the assessment organisation in place.

“Huge amounts of resources are being put in in terms of working with the providers; a lot of work is going on with the employers to make sure of that.”

He added: “I don’t think the picture is quite as bleak as it’s been painted in some areas.”

His comments came as part of a wide-ranging session that focused not only on the short term plans for the Apprentice Levy but also on some of the longer term efforts to use the skills agenda to address the UK’s growing productivity gap.

 

‘Five key priorities’

“Improving the prestige of apprenticeships is the key priority underpinning everything – it’s a cultural change,” Halfon said, before numbering his other four main objectives: “The second priority is to improve the UK’s skills base. 26% of apprentices come form the poorest areas, so it’s an important social mobility; the third is rolling out the apprentice levy successfully; the fourth is achieving the 3 million-by-2020 target while the last is ensuring apprenticeships are of the right quality.

As the committee chair called these targets ambitious, Halfon agreed with the need for urgency in tackling the growing productivity gap, quoting some ‘horrifying’ statistics: “We have a productivity rate 18% lower than the rest of the G20; in the EU, we’re ranked 22 out of 28 for the proportion of employees in vocational training, and 18 out of 26 for the number of hours training; training has declined £3bn in terms of business spending between 2011-to-2013. So we do have a problem and that’s why we’re running these reforms.”

Halfon was joined by David Hill, director of apprenticeships at the Department for Education, who said the reforms were, in part, all driving towards the same point: to give employers a direct incentive to invest in training themselves.

“Sometimes sector bodies like the CBI and FSB bear much of the load in developing frameworks and standards that then sometimes don’t meet the real needs of employers. Sector bodies have a role, but the reforms are designed to make employers more demanding customers of their training.”

“We are incentivizing small businesses,” Halfon added. “If there’s a sub-50 employee business, they will pay no training costs; all businesses employing 16-18 or with care plans, they get £1000 each to help with that.”

 

‘IFA will be ready’

The minister also confirmed his belief that the Institute for Apprenticeships (IFA) will be ready and fit for purpose according to the original time scale.

“We could have done nothing,” Haflon said. “I believe the levy, which affects 2% of businesses, will transform behaviours and raise the funds we need. We’re incentivising SMEs to follow this and the package of reforms is good, although there is work to be done.”

However, the committee wanted to know whether the shadow chair of the IFA, Peter Lautner, would be able to deliver on the reforms – a pertinent question given that the CEO position isn’t a full time role.

“Peter’s knowledge is extraordinary; and he is actually shadow CEO until next year,” said Hill. “And by April next year the CEO and chair and board will be in place and the institute will be up and running.”

Hill added that the transition from SFA to institute was an important priority, while confirming board interviews have been completed in time to appoint the posts before Christmas; “We’re midway through recruiting a full time chair and the senior staff are being recruited,” he added.

Finally, Halfon disagreed with some members of the committee who questioned whether apprenticeships were being prioritised to the detriment of the skills mix. “I disagree with that premise: we’re three times behind other major countries, and the evidence shows that apprentices get jobs at the end of the course – it’s a very successful route.

“And we’re not letting other skills suffer – apprenticeships is just one part of the work we’re doing under the Sainsbury report. We’re reforming technical education, working with FE colleges to help them, so it’s all part of the bigger picture.”