Department for Education urged to broaden focus from quantity to quality in apprenticeships drive

MPs say DfE must not focus solely on hitting target as it overhauls the UK's apprenticeships system

By Civil Service World

30 Nov 2016

MPs have called on the Department for Education to set out a "broader range of success measures" in its quest to kick-start three million new apprenticeships by the end of the parliament.

The DfE took on overall responsibility for the government's apprenticeship drive earlier this year, which includes introducing an apprenticeship levy on employers with an annual paybill of more than £3m and setting up a new Institute for Apprenticeships to review and approve standards.

But the latest report from the Public Accounts Committee urges the DfE to ensure that a focus on hitting the 3m target by 2020 does not come at the cost of long-term impact.

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While the PAC finds that the department has "good data on which apprenticeships deliver the most impact and provide the greatest return on investment", it says the department "has not set out how it will monitor the success of the programme".

"The programme involves more than just increasing apprentice numbers, but this is the only outcome the Department for Education [...] is monitoring," the MPs say.

"While apprenticeships are considered to be a key way of developing skills and improving productivity, the department’s only measure of success is to monitor the overall number of apprenticeship starts against a target of 3 million in the five years to 2020."

The DfE should, the study says, "publish, and regularly report on, a broader range of success measures, both at local and national level", including tracking whether apprentices move on to do other qualifications; whether they then benefit from increased earnings; and whether new apprenticeships are increasing access to occupations for "under-represented groups".

“Businesses, apprentices and taxpayers in general will not consider this policy a success simply because the Department for Education has hit its take-up target" – Meg Hillier MP

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said there was a "crucial distinction between quantity and quality" which the DfE "must not neglect as it pushes ahead with changes to the apprenticeships system".

“Businesses, apprentices and taxpayers in general will not consider this policy a success simply because the Department for Education has hit its take-up target," she added.

“The government must demonstrate it is delivering real value throughout the programme and, where weaknesses are identified, address them promptly."

The report also calls on the DfE to "streamline the process" for working with employers to draw up some 1,600 apprenticeship standards, and says the department has still not set out the precise role and resources of its new Institute for Apprenticeships, which will regulate whether such schemes are furnishing apprentices with relevant skills.

"The department must clarify the intended role of the IfA as quickly as possible, alongside that of existing oversight bodies," the PAC says. "This should include setting out who is responsible for the success of the programme, who has the power to intervene when value is not being delivered, and who takes the lead if the programme is not working as planned."

Responding to the report for the DfE, skills minister Robert Halfon said the government was "committed to not only achieving 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020, but also to driving up the quality of apprenticeships".

He added: “Quality is at the heart of all of our apprenticeship reforms. We have introduced new apprenticeship standards which are developed by employers themselves and rigorously checked and from next April, the new Institute for Apprenticeships will be charged with approving standards to ensure they are high quality.

“We are working closely with employers to ensure we track the benefits of apprenticeships and ensure quality continues to improve.”

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