Anne Milton left school with “O levels, and one A-level”, and went to train as a nurse at a teaching hospital. “In those days,” she recalls, nursing training “was an apprenticeship. We weren’t called apprentices, but student nurses in those days were essentially apprentices. We had blocks of three or four weeks in training, and we worked on the wards. So I did what would now be termed an apprenticeship.” Milton went on to work in the NHS for 25 years before retraining as an MP.
But while Milton’s pseudo-apprenticeship brought her a long and satisfying career that ultimately led to new and interesting work in Parliament, many other apprentices during those years took little or any benefit from their programmes. Some, Milton reveals, didn’t even know they were apprentices. “There were stories of people claiming they were employing apprentices, and in fact the employees didn’t know they were on an apprenticeship, because the system was very mixed.” While some companies created excellent opportunities, others created a situation in which “there was no formal training”.
“The trouble with an apprenticeship in the previous days”, says Milton, “is it didn’t have real currency, either with the apprentices themselves or with employers.”
The current overhaul of the apprenticeship system is designed to improve the quality of apprenticeships. “We introduced standards, which are put together by groups of employers. So if you’re a watchmaker, we get together a group of watchmakers and they decide what knowledge, skills and behaviours somebody doing that apprenticeship needs. Then they decide on what sort of end-point assessment is necessary, which gives quality assurance to the apprentice, and to future employers, that they have achieved a certain standard.”
But do the new standards really offer much more in the way of quality? The website of the Institute for Apprenticeships lists 533 apprenticeship standards. Among them is a standard for “Express Delivery Operative”, which is being developed by delivery firms including CitySprint and Hermes. Together, these firms use many thousands of “self-employed” delivery drivers under terms that have been disputed in employment tribunals. The Express Delivery Operative specification states that, after a year, apprentices “may become self-employed courier drivers”. Is it really worth anyone’s time completing a year-long apprenticeship – at rates of as little as £3.50 an hour, less than half the minimum wage – to enter the gig economy?
“Even at the lowest levels, although it might not feel appropriate to you,” Milton responds, “a lot of people were just doing these jobs without any real knowledge of why they were doing them, what constituted a good standard of service delivery.” While some level two apprenticeships may not sound impressive, she argues, “for some young people, this is a stepping stone towards going on and doing level three, four, five or even level six.”
Also listed on the IfA website is the specification for Hospitality Team Member. Like all new apprenticeships this lasts at least a year, and it includes the chance to specialise. The “Barista” specialist function training offers the opportunity to “know the main categories and types of hot and cold beverages, in particular coffee, and the methods of preparing and serving them.”
Alternatively the “Housekeeping” specialist function gives apprentices the skills to “clean and maintain bedrooms and public areas including furniture, fixtures and fittings, soft and hard flooring”. What does a young person entering the job market gain from making coffee or mopping floors, for at least a year, at down to £3.50 an hour?
“Twenty per cent off-the-job training, and an end-point assessment,” answers Milton. “So, when you go to a future employer, you can say, this is my qualification. I have followed a training course, I’ve been employed for a year and I’ve passed an assessment at the end of it.” According to UCAS, a level two apprenticeship qualification is “generally considered to be equivalent to five GCSE passes”, and recent research by the Sutton Trust shows that the market seems to support this – by age 28, people who start an apprenticeship earn significantly more (23 per cent for men and 15 per cent for women) than those who leave school with only GCSEs.
It was in 2015, almost two years before Anne Milton moved to the DfE, that the government committed to the two pieces of policy that now define her position: there must be three million apprentices by 2020, and their training must be paid for using the apprenticeship levy. But the three million figure is a measure of how many start an apprenticeship, not how many complete one. With almost a third of apprentices dropping out in 2016, would completions not have been a more effective goal?
“Starts are not the only measure of success,” Milton agrees, “but when you’re starting a new system, all you’ve got are starts – we’ve not been going a year yet.” Milton says she plans to introduce, “hopefully by the summer, some live monitoring from both apprentices and employers, so that we can see how the system is going. My idea is that an apprentice could, maybe once a month, grade their training provider and their employer, so that we can see patterns emerge – we’ll find out which are the good employers, which are the good training providers.”
Keeping the number of starts high has not been made easy by the Levy, which requires companies with paybills of over £3m – of which Milton says there are over 20,000 – to pay 0.5 per cent of their paybill into a fund that can only be spent on external training for apprentices. The Levy came into force in April last year, and by the time DfE produced its first set of statistics in October, apprenticeship starts had fallen 61 per cent.
“It is what we anticipated,” says Milton. “Before the new system came in, in April, there was a big rush to employ apprentices. People don’t like change, this was a new system, and actually, employing apprentices was going to be more onerous if you wanted to take advantage of your levy. So we expected it to fall quite dramatically.” Milton prefers to focus on the fact that while the levy reduced apprenticeship starts by almost 70,000 in three months, the number of higher-level apprenticeships rose during that period.
Milton seems confident that the overall number will climb, based on what she’s been told by big businesses. “Microsoft has about 5,000 apprentices now, but they’re planning to get that up to 30,000 by 2020. I recently met a few of the big names in the hospitality and retail sector – they’re very happy. Some of those organisations say they’re going to spend all of their levy.
They are very keen to get people in on level two and progress them. For them, it’s an opportunity to spot talent. So somebody might come in on a level two apprenticeship, they might not have done well at school, and they see the potential in them.”
A large hotel chain would also, it could be argued, see the “potential” in paying someone £3.50 an hour to clean the rooms or work in the bar for a year. Milton replies that “you can only pay £3.50 for the first year, if they’re over 19, and actually the average earnings for an apprentice is about £6.70.” Technically this is true, but it’s an average figure that is raised by the fact that many apprentices are already in work (two-thirds of apprentices are over 25). For apprentices aged 16-18, the median pay in 2016 was £3.81.
What counts for Milton, though, is the central principle that more workers are being trained. The whole reason for apprenticeship reform, she says, was that “we realised that in many other countries – Germany being a notable example – business has a long history of investing in the skills of their workforce. We didn’t, in this country. And I think one of the reasons apprenticeships haven’t worked that well in this country is because governments have tried to do it. What we’ve done by introducing the levy is to put it in the hands of employers – so, you’ve got a skills shortage, you now have a dedicated account, it is your money, so you need to make sure that you use it to train the workforce that you need.”
Ultimately, says Milton, “the only thing that matters is that any money put aside is spent on the purpose for which it was intended, which is to get high-quality apprenticeships out there, so that apprenticeships are not just for the kids who didn’t do well at school, it’s a real option for kids who did very well at school.”
In the confusion and embarrassment of Theresa May’s recent reshuffle it was Milton, with her long background in the NHS, who was tipped to become the new Health Secretary. In different times Jeremy Hunt might have been moved by force, but this January he was able simply to refuse the embattled PM. Milton’s reasons for going into politics – “I didn’t think there were enough women represented, enough people like me – people who had worked on the front line in the public sector. There certainly weren’t enough nurses” – suggest she would have welcomed the new position. But at the DfE a major policy overhaul, a new tax on businesses and a hugely ambitious target will no doubt benefit from the kind of cheerful enthusiasm taught by a quarter-century of nursing.