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Levy not to blame for apprenticeship fall

UK: The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) claims that “teething problems” with the apprenticeship levy are not the main reason for disappointing apprenticeship numbers.

Figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) show that apprenticeship starts between August 2017 and January 2018 dropped to 206,100 from 269,600 apprenticeship starts for the same period between August 2016 and January 2017.

The new apprenticeship levy, which is designed to allow employers to choose and pay for apprenticeship training more easily, was introduced in May 2017.

The figures prompted the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) to call for a reform of the apprenticeship levy to make it workable for business. The BCC said the system was causing “confusion and frustration” among the UK business community and was acting as a “brake” on skills development.

BESA admits that the figures are “a bitter blow” to the government’s plans for creating three million new apprentices by 2020, but maintains that the success of the strategy could not be properly judged until the full year’s figures are released in November.

The association believes the government is, more or less, on the right track. “The figures are disappointing, but apprenticeships are going through a time of unprecedented change,” said BESA President Tim Hopkinson. “It is not just the Levy itself that is at fault. Employers are finding the changes challenging and too many training providers still deliver courses that are simply not relevant to the modern workplace.

“SMEs, in particular, are just starting to get their heads around how the funding from the levy works – and the impact of larger employers passing on a share of their funds to supply chain partners has not kicked in yet. That could be a game-changer,” he added.

“We have seen some very positive work by employers, but there also needs to be much more support for training designed by employers for employers. This is the model for the New Standard apprenticeships, which are just getting up and running and must be backed up by more fleet-footed course providers willing to offer practical and targeted training. That is where the DfE should intervene,” said Mr Hopkinson.

Rather than scrapping the Levy, BESA believes there should be renewed focus on making sure employers can access the funds.

Director of BESA Training Tony Howard appealed to the DfE to make the system more flexible by increasing funding to those training providers able to deliver specific courses for the industries in most need.

“Currently, employers are restricted to a relatively small number of large organisations able to provide non levy-funded apprentice training on programmes that employers evidently don’t want – and many of those do not cater for specialised industries like building engineering services,” he said.

“Employers are frustrated by this, but we are still dealing with a record number of enquiries from companies of all sizes wanting apprentices. We have also seen a 27% increase in new apprentices signing up to our New Standard courses,” said Mr Howard.

“Numbers are still too low, but that’s because of the lack of funding for SMEs. Employers can see the potential in the new training approach so, given time, the situation will improve.”

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