Sunday thoughts: Could apprenticeships be Labour’s big education offer?
I was facilitating a focus group the other week, when I heard what Labour’s big education idea for the next manifesto could be.
It was a group of pretty much EveryBritain — swing voters, in a swing seat, with a mixed age and gender and socio economic group. *
And we were talking about apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships always focus group well. In fact, if I’m honest, my eyes were slightly glazing over for the first bit of the conversation, as it proceeded much as the last ten or so group discussions on this topic had done.
But then we tested something quite specific. Some people say that we should prioritise young people for apprenticeships given that that is the traditional meaning of the term, and given it’s often framed as an alternative to college or university. And some people say no, given the need for lifelong learning and frequent retraining, and especially with the rise of AI, we should allow people of any age (and any educational level) to take them. What did this group think?
The group was unanimous.
“I just think there should be a better balance with kids that either don’t want to go into university or are not academically suited to going to university. There should be much more availability for companies to take kids on, and actually train them up.”
“There’s apprenticeships for people at any age? I thought apprenticeships were just for kind of younger people. It would be nice to think that anybody at any age should have the flexibility to be able to change careers, if they’re willing to actually make the effort to do it. But I guess if I’m really honest, that should be for kids, really, so they can get that that decent start.”
“Yes, we all have to be trained and retrained, I’m in the middle of it now. But I think we need to really focus on the younger generation, they need our help more than more ever. In the last 30,40,50 years things have dramatically changed. And it’s so much harder for younger generation. So they need to be prioritised. Otherwise, they are looking at a bleak future.”
I pushed a little more, given the strength of feeling in the group. Were they really deprioritising older learners, and those who wanted to retrain? Yes, they were.
I hadn’t heard an idea that strongly taken up since I first started focus grouping the concept of tutoring, in the early stages of the pandemic. And when I checked with my co-facilitator who had done a similar group, he agreed.
Labour are in need of a big idea in education ever since they delayed and delayed on their childcare announcement, only to get scooped by the Government in the Budget. (Though is it a scoop if it’s been telegraphed for so long? Or is it like my daughter, who says “I will” for an hour when I ask her to go and get something from upstairs, only for me to finally snap “oh fine, I’ve waited long enough, I’ll do it”?) I don’t think “we will also do childcare, but bigger and better” will fly. But something on young apprentices might.
There’s a good policy case for it too. Figures from the House of Lords Select Committee, as per the below, show that there’s been a precipitous fall in under 19 Apprenticeship starts since 2003 as a proportion of all Apprentices and a smaller tailing off of 19–24s. And although these charts stop a couple of years ago, the pattern hasn’t changed since. As the third chart shows, Covid merely exacerbated the switching off of options for younger people, in favour of the older.
This, then, is what Labour would be trying to reverse.
I would be strongly against, however, reintroducing the previous ban on over 25s undertaking apprenticeships. And nor would I focus on restricting apprenticeship levels of learning. Unlike some others, I think there absolutely is a case for all workers accessing training through their firm — even at Levels 6 and above. Older workers do need to retrain. And I wouldn’t focus on just lower level apprenticeships, at Levels 2 and 3, for young people. Degree apprenticeships have been a huge success (albeit they skew a lot to the middle classes now), and I can see a huge potential growth of Level 4 and 5 apprenticeships alongside those in future years for young people who have achieved Level 3, but who choose not to study as an undergraduate.
Instead, I’d ringfence a proportion of the levy, which could only be spent on apprentices under the age of 25. (This aligns with the current way in which apprentice ages are measured, though in truth I’d ideally have it as 23 or under). The exact proportion would be up for debate — probably around a half. That allows companies the flexibility to deliver apprenticeships for older workers if needed, but gives a clear requirement to prioritise the younger. These could be existing employees, or new ones — and the age profile means it will naturally tilt to the latter — and it would cover all levels of apprenticeships, including degree apprentices.
I’m by no means the first to suggest this — a lot of people who gave evidence to the House of Lords suggested the same. Alongside this change, I’d also lift a lot of the EDSK recommendations around closing down some of the apprenticeship standards which aren’t really apprenticeships at all and are just subsidies for entry grade jobs, and pushing hard on a minimum duration for all apprenticeships, with greater focus on making the off-the-job training element substantive as well. And finally, alongside the stick of a restricted / semi ringfenced levy, I’d also want to consider various incentives which ‘de-risk’ the taking on of a young apprentice for firms — whether that be wage subsidy, wiping of NI contributions, or other mechanisms — maybe even some form of maintenance support for young people on apprenticeships.
Taken together, this is a strong policy offer. And, dare I say, it’s considerably better than the current vague “replace the apprenticeship levy with an apprenticeship and skills levy” Labour plan, which just sounds like code for “stop large employers moaning at me that they can’t spend their levy and want to use it for less well evidenced training programmes”.
But as well as the strong policy case, I’m struck by the politics of this. This would allow Labour to position themselves as a party that supports young people but also leans into productivity and economic growth. Ideally, a levy announcement would be part of a broader package of skills announcements by Labour which also pledged to reverse the levels of investment into skills training back to 2010 levels; increase employer investment outside the levy; ramp up the quality of state supported and employer supported training; and, in total, deliver a significant increase in the total number of people being trained every year under various routes — including a substantial proportion of young people. And of course, alongside and as part of this, it would make sense to do something equally bold on HE finances to support those who continue to want to go into HE (which is a lot of would-be Labour voters, and their parents).
It’s a rare education announcement that makes both instinctive sense in a focus group, and has a policy rationale. What’s more, the price tag would be relatively low as it would be largely repurposing the levy. Worked up into a full “skills for all young people, whichever route they choose to take at 16 / 18” package, with a large target of learners attached to it, could really be of interest.
* The groups were for UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Outcomes (CEPEO) who have since published a manifesto for all parties on evidence based ideas for reform, including this idea on apprenticeships. The manifesto can be found here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/centres/centre-education-policy-and-equalising-opportunities/policy-priorities