Recent data from the Department for Business and Skills (BIS) has shown that in the period August 2012 to January 2013, nearly 11,500 fewer people started an Apprenticeship programme compared with the same period in the previous year. That’s a fall of about 4.5%. So why is this decline occurring at a time when Apprenticeships are being so strongly promoted and is it something we should be seriously worried about?
What’s Causing The Decline in Numbers?
As always, this is a complex problem. Some analysts are blaming the lack of appropriate careers advice in schools and the continued promotion of “University” as the preferred route for students. However this scarcity of good advice, whilst regrettable, didn’t just start in August 2012 and until then, Apprenticeship numbers had been steadily rising.
I think we have to look more deeply at some of the changes which have taken place within the Apprenticeship arena over the last 6 months.
Firstly, there has been a clear shift in thinking from “quantity” to “quality”. There has been widespread recognition that some Apprenticeship programmes were being poorly delivered whilst other large-scale projects which were aimed primarily at existing, competent staff, are no longer supported. Moreover, the government has made it very clear in its response to the Richard Review, that such programmes will not be funded in the future. I believe that most providers and supporters of the Apprenticeship programme would support the move towards quality and if this results in a short-term fall in numbers, I don’t see it as a cause for concern. Apprenticeships should never be a numbers game nor a “sheep dip” exercise designed to tick boxes and draw down funding. They should be a stepping stone which gets people back into learning and on to the first rung of a career ladder.
Is Functional Skills The Real Problem?
Secondly, and I am surprised that no-one appears to have pointed this out, I do not believe it is a coincidence that this sudden decline in Apprenticeship numbers has coincided almost exactly with the mandatory introduction of Functional Skills into the framework. I suspect that some providers and organisations offering Apprenticeships, may have become much more selective about the people they put forward in the belief that many would-be Apprentices would not get through the rigorous Functional Skills programme.
If that is the real reason for the decline in numbers, then I am extremely worried about the short-sighted nature of this reaction. There will of course be those people who will say “I told you so – we should go back to Key Skills”. That of course would be the easy solution – a few boxes would be ticked and Apprentices would progress. However, it would have done nothing whatsoever to address the skills crisis in the UK brought about primarily by poor levels of Maths and English.
A far more effective approach would be to ensure that Functional Skills can be delivered in a way that provides high success rates and motivates learners to progress rather than putting them off the entire learning process.
We set up Creative Learning Partners to do just that. We believe that Functional Skills is so important that it needs to be delivered by specialists and it needs to be delivered in an innovative and fun way which will engage learners and further develop their motivation to succeed. We don’t claim to be the only company delivering specialist Functional Skills programmes – there are some excellent other dedicated providers. However, we do know from feedback, that our learners genuinely enjoy our blended, technology-driven approach and our clients are equally delighted with our success rates and completion times.
Of course, Functional Skills is only part of the overall Apprenticeship framework. But functional Maths and English skills are vital not just if Apprentices are going to progress further within their organisations, but if UK Plc is to compete globally in the 21st century.
So please don’t let’s start looking backwards to Key Skills in order to reverse the decline in Apprenticeship numbers. Instead, let’s look forward and focus on making Functional Skills work both for our learners and for the commercial organisations who employ them and whose future success is dependent on the skills and abilities of their people.