English apprenticeships “in free fall”, while Wales is on track to meet apprenticeships goals

(Title Image: Jisc.ac.uk under Creative Commons Licence)

Labour’s 2016 manifesto included a commitment to create 100,000 apprenticeships during the 2016-2021 term. Yesterday, AMs were updated.

“On track”

Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), said that between April 2016 and July 2018 56,636 apprenticeships started. Despite criticisms for not following England’s approach, he believed the Welsh approach was proving to be the right choice.

“Our apprenticeship scheme is on track. The English scheme is in free fall. The number of starts in Wales has increased. Last week, the (English) National Audit Office reported that instead of rising as they had hoped, the apprenticeship starts in England are 25% lower than they were two years ago, and it said the UK Government is ‘very unlikely’ to meet its target. We have taken a fair amount of stick from the opposition on this, and the evidence at this stage shows that we are right and they’re wrong.”
– Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters

Future developments include a new online portal to make the apprenticeship application process more user-friendly. New guidelines will also be issued to combat gender and disability equality – something opposition AMs were keen to raise.

Shadow Skills Minister, Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East), raised concerns by Estyn that course providers of higher level apprenticeships weren’t managing them well. There were also concerns about careers advice and a lack of transparency around the funding and operation of the apprenticeship scheme.

“Good-quality career advice is essential to promote the benefits that apprenticeships can bring to students at an early stage. Concerns have been expressed about the quality and the availability of careers advice, citing the shortage of trained career advisors and lack of knowledge of apprenticeships and vocational training by school staff. Could the Minister advise the Assembly if he is content with the availability of career advice in Wales and the accuracy of advice on vocational and educational training?”
– Shadow Skills Minister, Mohammad Asghar AM

On careers advice, the Minister said services will be “rationalised” alongside other programmes like ReAct and Jobs Growth Wales – some of which will be delivered by Careers Wales.

“An idealistic picture”

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) said the statement painted an “idealistic picture” which masked problems. One of those problems was a lack of women in higher-paying apprenticeships, particularly construction – later echoed by Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central), who said women apprentices often end up in lower-paid sectors like hairdressing and childcare.

“As has been stated earlier, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has said that we need to do much more work to get women into apprenticeships and not just in those apprenticeships that women are often linked to historically. There are a number of opportunities in the building and manufacturing industries, but it’s men, chiefly, who are having access to those and then getting better pay because of that. So, what are you going to do to ensure that that inequality comes to an end?”
– Bethan Sayed AM

She also laid on example after example of flaws in the apprenticeship scheme: Should apprenticeships be funded directly rather than through providers? A low number of Welsh medium apprenticeships (just 0.4%), a lack of degree-level apprenticeship in digital skills and transport costs for apprentices.

The Deputy Minister contested some of the figures; 4% of apprenticeships were assessed in Welsh and 8% at least part-taught in Welsh. He added that while free transport was something worth looking at, it needed to be part of a bigger picture, not confined to specific groups.

Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) – who’s been through the apprenticeship system himself – asked about skill transfer from older workers to apprentices. Many of the people currently teaching apprentices are nearing retirement age and he believed they should be replaced with recent graduate apprentices. The Deputy Minister was willing to discuss that idea further with officials.

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