This National Apprenticeship Week I’m looking forward to the best part of my job – getting out there and meeting people whose lives are being transformed by this training. From east to west, from arboriculture to audiology, I will be touring the country to congratulate apprentices climbing the ladder of opportunity to better work and higher wages.
Strengthening further education is a key support holding up the ladder, and the Apprenticeship Levy is an important part of this. I do not agree with the calls to spend it on other skills. Its funds have raised the quality of apprenticeships since 2017, making them respected by employers and sought after by learners. Since 2010 the government has doubled the apprenticeships spend in cash terms, from £1.2bn in 2010-11 to £2.5bn in 2022-23. Diluting its use would significantly reduce the number of apprenticeship opportunities. Allowing employers to use half of the fund for other skills training could have resulted in around 60 per cent fewer apprentice starts in the last academic year, according to official estimates.
The Apprenticeship Levy is a Ronseal levy – it does what it says on the tin: supports employers to take on more apprentices and invest in the highquality training needed for a skilled workforce. As Jo Shipley, head of apprenticeships at Wolseley UK, a supplier of building materials, says: “We now offer 45 different programmes which we would not be able
to facilitate internally. Without the levy we’re not sure we would offer this development and training.”
This levy is part of the huge progress we’ve made since 2010 to transform apprenticeships and skills education. There have been over five million apprenticeships since then, with quality rising through the decade.
There were fewer than half a million people doing apprenticeships in 2009/10. Last year there were over 750,000 participating and training to the more rigorous, industry-designed standards we introduced from 2014. Over 690 different apprenticeships are now available, in roles from nursing to aerospace engineering, each delivering the skills industries seek in new staff.
To expand the potential of these routes, we introduced degree-level apprenticeships in 2015. Since then there have been over 218,000 people starting on these prestigious training pathways. Students benefit from collaborations between top businesses and world-class universities, which fit them for great work, pay them a wage, and don’t charge tuition fees. Like all apprenticeships they offer earning and learning, which is particularly valuable to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Degree apprenticeships can provide the perfect higher-education gateway for someone who might not otherwise consider a degree due to costs and debt.
This is the great strength of apprenticeships, and we’re continually working to make them more accessible to those who could most benefit from them. We’re currently building a pilot scheme to help training providers to offer quality mentoring to disabled people embarking on apprenticeships so that they can get tailored support from someone who understands their individual needs and circumstances.
We want more care-leavers to access the life-changing opportunities apprenticeships can bring, which is why last August we raised the bursary for those starting one to £3,000. These young people leaving care can now begin their career confident they can cover the living costs usually met by family. This is on top of the £1,000 available to both the employer and training provider who take on a care-experienced apprentice – making a total of £5,000 of additional funding available per apprentice to boost outcomes for this group.
Small businesses are engines of opportunity, typically employing younger apprentices and those in more disadvantaged areas. We are slashing regulation and red tape for these businesses, including reducing the steps needed to take on an apprentice, and we have already removed the limit on the number of apprentices they can hire. We continue to pay 95 per cent of training costs for small employers, rising to 100 per cent for the smallest firms if their apprentice is aged 18 or under. Our other skills routes have been built to complement the apprenticeships programme, creating a world-class system where quality is paramount. We have invested £3.8bn over this parliament to expand and strengthen further and higher education. This includes launching highquality T Levels for 16-year-olds, and £300m for 21 Institutes of Technology to lead technical training in Stem-related industries. Next year we will introduce the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, which will revolutionise the skills landscape. Like getting on and off a train, learners will be able to alight and board their post-school education when it suits them, rather than being confined to a single ticket.
And following the Prime Minister’s announcement last autumn, we are laying the groundwork for the Advanced British Standard. This new qualification will combine the best of A-levels and T Levels, putting an end to the artificial divide between academic and technical education. In my office I have a picture of John F Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States. He once said: “We choose to go to the moon … and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Our apprenticeships and skills reforms will take time to bear fruit. I know this because I’ve been campaigning on them for a long time. Since being elected in 2010, everything I’ve done has been to champion apprenticeships and skills; I was the first MP to employ a full-time apprentice in my parliamentary office.
I’m doing this not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. Every skill learned means better jobs, prospects and security for the apprentice. Kennedy also said: “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”
And step by step, we are building a skills and apprenticeships nation. Every business that prospers thanks to the people it has successfully trained is proof of that. I know that when I’m out and about during National Apprenticeship Week, from Bodmin to Ipswich, the inspiring apprentices, training providers and businesses I meet will confirm to me that the hard things are worth doing.
This article first appeared in our print Spotlight report on Skills, published on 2 February 2024.
[See also: How to fix the apprenticeship levy]