It’s very timely that the 1000th edition of Countdown should occur when a new government white paper for the sector is imminent. This has prompted us to reflect about the 20 years which those 1000 editions have covered and what lessons should be learned to avoid making mistakes for the future. We should bear in mind of course that while some of us have been around throughout this period, ministers change almost every other year and civil servants regularly move on; the current ones may not be aware of past mistakes and what actually worked. Our reflections can probably be grouped under four main headings:
The problem with most politicians is that they always want to invent something new when often a manifesto idea is just a rebadging or revamping of a programme that has existed before. Adult education is good example with the Adult Skills Budget being renamed in 2015 as the Adult Education Budget and since then the now defunct National Retraining Scheme and the National Skills Fund have appeared on the scene – all incredibly confusing to the employer and the learner who wants to know what a Lifetime Skills Guarantee actually means. The forthcoming white paper could certainly do us a service in rationalising the funding streams and while the jury is still out on how successful devolved AEB has been, it is understandable that others are calling for more devolution for skills. The Social Market Foundation published a report last week calling for the return of adult skills accounts and this is where AELP has always believed the solution for adult education lies.
In October 2006, training providers responded enthusiastically to our launch of a new Learning Innovation Grant to encourage more e-learning in the workplace. 189 bids totalling £7 million were received for the initial £1.5 million made available by the Learning and Skills Council and more bidding rounds followed over the next few years. Yes, there was enthusiasm among ITPs for e-learning long before Covid arrived, but the point is skills provision landscape now consists much more of work based learning, classroom learning, e-learning, blended learning and full-time or part-time learning. Providing that they have the safeguard of choosing from accredited courses and approved providers, learners should be given skills accounts to make the choice themselves.
Apprenticeships were singled out as the government’s flagship skills programme when the coalition government entered office but the ground had been well laid by then for the programme’s growth under previous administrations. When the Queen’s Speech in 2007 announced an apprenticeships bill, AELP called for adequate funding for the 16 to 24 age group and not just for the ‘guaranteed’ 16 to 18 group. We also wanted the legislation to include a Baker Clause and a role for Ofsted to enforce it. Thirteen years later, we have a Baker Clause but its enforcement and the huge issue of funding young apprentices remain very much on the table. In fact, the guarantee is no longer in place and AELP wants to see 16-18 apprenticeships funded again by the mainstream DfE budget instead of the levy.
We haven’t got the space here to write about the levy’s full history, but it is worth recalling one aspect of the levy’s development after Doug Richard published his review in 2012. Employer co-investment was first mooted as cash up front and set at 30% while funding would go directly to the employer. AELP was the first to say that this would be extremely damaging to SME engagement, bearing in mind that it has been the smaller employers who have recruited younger apprentices at the lower levels, placing them on the ‘ladder of opportunity’. Gradually the evidence piled up that we were right and the co-investment rate is now 5% with the funding being channelled to the provider. Looking ahead, it is encouraging to hear Gillian Keegan recognise that the system is “clunky” for the funding of SMEs’ apprenticeships; hence our long-standing recommendation that there should be a standalone budget for them.
On the challenge of skills ministers being in post for a short period, we have had plenty to compare over the past 18 years (we always knew for example that Matt Hancock would be moving quickly up the government ranks). Perhaps we should give a special shout-out to Sir John Hayes who came into the post in 2010 having had the advantage of getting to know the sector when he held the shadow post in opposition. His legacy is Traineeships which again AELP lobbied for as a programme for those young people who weren’t ready to start an apprenticeship or work. In fact Graham Hoyle and your chairman presented to him in person a written paper proposing a ‘preparatory training programme’ before the department came up with the name. The programme has subsequently lacked proper support from the DfE but Rishi Sunak has wiped the spark plugs with his recent £111m injection and let us hope that Traineeships now have a sustainable future. With an officially confirmed 79% success rate, they are effective and they deserve the Treasury’s support.
Another common thread throughout Countdown’s history has been the complaint that the DfE and DWP have not worked closely enough together on skills and employability programmes. We have members who contract with both departments and as Lord Freud carried forward his welfare-to-work reforms under Gordon Brown into the coalition government, AELP was not afraid to voice its concerns about the design of the Work Programme. EU law against considering a provider’s track-record in any procurement was a particular problem on the DWP side and perhaps Brexit will reduce the chances of future mistakes on track-record as we saw how some lead Work Programme contractors failed significantly to meet their targets and had to be replaced. We say again that with the UK in another recession, the DfE and DWP must co-operate closely - the danger of Kickstart, which contains no obligation on the employer to train, displacing new apprenticeship opportunities must be uppermost in their current discussions.
Let’s be honest about it; there are people who are simply ideologically opposed to independent training providers operating in the publicly funded skills market and some of them operate at senior levels in government. In the run-up to the white paper’s publication, it is being put about by some people that while ITPs do a good job of selling skills to employers, the quality of their provision is poor compared with other types of provider. Nothing could be further from the truth and when we say the truth, we are not referring to AELP’s opinion; we are pointing to a welter of evidence published by the DfE, Ofsted, CBI/Pearson and others, stretching back over more than ten years.
In December 2005, the Inspectorate’s annual report observed, “Perhaps the most compelling theme from the past four years has been the coming of age of private and not-for-profit work based learning providers. The overall grade profiles for the past four years show nothing less than a transformation. The proportion of inadequate work has fallen sharply and, at least as important, the proportion of good and outstanding work has more than doubled”. This came though after an early and successful AELP battle for the authorities to look at a ‘basket of measures’ when considering a training provider’s performance.
Subsequent issues of Countdown reported how apprenticeship completion rates were increasing to the point in 2008 that they compared with the best in Europe. By 2017, with ITPs accounting for 75% of apprenticeship delivery, independent research found that higher level apprentices were out-earning graduates from non-Russell Group universities.
ITPs are not grant funded. They only get paid by the state for what they deliver for employers and individual learners. Therefore if they are to retain the business they win, they have to be of a good quality; otherwise the customer can go elsewhere. In July 2014, the CBI/Pearson skills survey of employers confirmed a very high employer satisfaction rating of 93% with private training providers which were used by 88% of the businesses surveyed. In the survey report’s own words, the rating was “far ahead” of universities and colleges. The findings also showed that training providers scored much better in terms of being flexible about when they deliver the training. The picture hasn’t changed at all since which may explain why last year’s report ceased to carry provider comparison findings. There was a small slip in Ofsted’s annual report in 2019 for ITPs found to be good or outstanding (now 76%) because after the apprenticeship levy’s introduction, Ofsted chose to include the variable results of employer provider inspections with ITP outcomes – something which we have asked Ofsted to change for reports in future years.
Having said all that, we should never be complacent about quality and AELP regards the way in which the ESFA has recently reintroduced account management for the largest providers as a positive step because they have improved two-way communications between the regulator and the provider.
Past editions of Countdown reveal a treasure trove on the quest for a skills system led by the demands of employers and individual learners. Education Secretary Charles Clarke’s skills white paper of July 2003 committed to opening up the market and the government invited the newly formed AELP on to the Skills Alliance. After the Foster review panel, which included your chairman as AELP’s representative, advocated more contestability (remember, this is all under a Labour government), an FE white paper in 2006 proposed that the majority of adult skills funding should be demand-led by 2015! The last AEB procurement in 2017 prior to devolution allowed for ITPs to compete for less than 8% of the £1.5bn budget with the rest remaining grant allocations for other institutions. Given that the budget has featured regular annual underspends over the past five years, you can see why we want the return of adult skills accounts as part of a demand-led system.
Lord Leitch’s review for Gordon Brown in 2006 recommended that the introduction of a genuinely demand-led system for all skills should be brought forward to 2010. Your chairman was privately admonished by Business Secretary John Denham when AELP complained via the pages of the Financial Times that his department was doing its best to block such radicalism.
However, we should end this section on another note of optimism for the future because the ESFA has now achieved an entirely demand-led system for apprenticeships with SME employers joining the digital apprenticeship service. We can justifiably complain that no levy funding needed to be handed back to the Treasury if the agency had looked after its non-levy contract holders better in terms of meeting demand, but if the overall budget is sufficient to satisfy SME demand, the holy grail at least in this part of the system will have been achieved. In a non-partisan spirit, we should credit George Osborne’s introduction of the levy for moving us towards it.
Past Countdowns show how quickly AELP established itself as the voice for work based learning and ITPs after it came together in 1999 before it was formally incorporated in 2002. We have mentioned being invited onto the Foster review and we were represented in the bureaucracy busting taskforce chaired by the then Knowsley College principal, Sir George Sweeney (sorry, Gillian; he’s an Evertonian). Your chairman also worked with former senior DfE official Susan Pember on the end-to-end review of apprenticeships in 2004 which proposed that employers should be given greater
discretion and authority to recommend entry standards and determine the attributes needed for
fully skilled status within an apprenticeship – a forerunner to the trailblazers! An accepted AELP recommendation was exploring the feasibility of an innovative ‘clearing house’ for apprenticeships, potentially covering promotion; matching; coaching; transfers between employers and follow-up.
Although there have been occasional frustrations about getting our points to the decision-makers, sometimes due to the over zealousness of ministerial gatekeepers, we have been at most of the relevant top tables since. Arguably the biggest frustration was officials hiding the fact that it was ITPs who were responsible for the training of three out of every four apprentices in England and that we had to submit an FOI in 2016 to establish the fact. Up until that point, ministers and MPs had no idea of the scale of the ITP contribution to the FE and skills system.
It is an extrapolation but our member surveys suggest that ITPs are engaging with something like 380,000 employers across the country. This makes for a very fast bush wire in terms of us feeding back to the government and its agencies what is and isn’t working on the ground. Despite this, sometimes we are not believed (the providers’ “vested interests” barb) and the appropriate response is slow, but a common theme reading back through old Countdowns is how frequently AELP has been ahead of the curve in identifying what the customer (employer or learner) wants and the possible pitfalls in any government policies being set out. Furthermore AELP never complains about something without articulating a possible solution or improvement to put it right and this has never changed under Graham Hoyle, Stewart Segal, Mark Dawe and now Jane Hickie. And more often than not, it doesn’t involve asking for more money; it is about using existing funding more efficiently. We will keep banging on about SME apprenticeship funding though!
AELP is extremely grateful to the frontbench teams in Parliament, the education select committee, a fair-minded sector press and other stakeholders who are happy to listen to the reasoned arguments that we try to put forward. AELP has a staff count of barely 20 people working on behalf of some 800 members, serving hundreds of thousands of learners, and our member surveys show that the organisation does a very good job in lobbying effectively and providing valued member services. The support of members, in particular the feedback from the ground, is critical to our success and with a restructured Board, we are confident that future editions of Countdown will report good progress in achieving what is best for employers and learners and ITPs supporting the drive towards increased productivity.
Martin Dunford OBE