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Bristol Council will seek to buck the trend of social immobility, amid concerns for quality behind central government’s targets.

Illustration: Jack Wilson

On Monday 26th June, the council’s Cabinet has approved the launch of the Bristol Apprenticeship Service, aimed at facilitating the management and delivery of apprenticeships within Bristol City Council’s core services, schools and partner employers.

Mayor Marvin Rees asserted: “We want to buck the trend on social immobility.

The new service is being launched in response to the previous government’s pledge to create 3m new apprenticeships by 2020. As written in the Enterprise Act 2016, public sector employers with over 250 employees are expected to contribute towards achieving the target. This requires them to meet the quota of 2.3% of their workforce starting an apprenticeship each year.

These apprenticeships will primarily be funded by  ‘apprenticeship levy’ subsidies, a national pot of funding made up from a 0.5% tax on any employers paybill over £3m. The scheme started collecting funds in April of this year and the schemes it supports are beginning to roll out.

Although the scheme is set to have a positive effect, the large scale rollout of apprenticeship targets, at significant speed, has triggered criticisms over whether the apprenticeships will be of high enough quality to be worthwhile for applicants.

Another key issue is the discrepancy between the £2.8bn to be collected by the apprenticeship levy by 2019, and the far lower amount, £640m, that will be disbursed back into apprenticeships subsidies over the same period. This suggests the government will spend most of the income elsewhere.

“Bucking the trend on social immobility”

In the report submitted to the council’s Cabinet by Claire Hiscott, conservative cabinet member for education and skills, the Bristol Apprenticeship Service is presented as offering “innovative programmes that not only meet our business needs but are more attractive to new apprentices and to existing staff wishing to develop their career.”

By centralising the delivery team and infrastructure of the apprenticeship service, and generating funding from the Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), the council aims to make savings of £100k on apprenticeship expenditures in the year 2017-18. There is also further potential to increase income through the ESFA.

With a workforce of 6,000 (and 12,000 including schools), the council will need to increase the number of starting apprenticeships from 86 currently to 138/276 by March 2020 in order to meet its apprenticeship targets. Bristol as a whole has generated an average of over 3,000 new apprenticeships for the past 3 years.

Referring to the lack of awareness about the existence of apprenticeship schemes in her previous professional experience, Cllr Asher Craig (Labour) claimed: “young people didn’t know what was available, it really wasn’t being sold to them as an alternative as they were pushed down the academic route.”

Mayor Marvin Rees asserted: “We want to buck the trend on social immobility. This is a socially immobile country. I don’t think we buck the trend as a city – there is no indication that we do.”

“And this is a key part of that, connecting young people with an opportunity to develop, particularly now as we look at the fragmentation and borderline xenophobia in the national political conversation it’s really important that we offer a pathway to social and economic inclusion.”

Quality over quantity

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However, if the intended objective is to improve skills and work opportunities across the workforce, the steep targets set out by central government have raised concerns. Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South, warned: “what I’m keen to ensure is that we look closely at quality not just quantity, because ultimately that’s what’s going to have a lasting impact on people’s lives.”

Bristol Apprenticeship Scheme seems to have taken the measure of these potential pitfalls. Documents explaining how the programme will run emphasise the “team will take responsibility for all quality assurance of the apprenticeship programme” and “offer the city council’s core service areas, schools and other employers clear advice and guidance in relation to suitable apprenticeship standards or frameworks when recruiting an apprentice or up-skilling an existing member of staff.”

These statements somewhat address Institute for Fiscal Studies warnings that employers could rebrand training they would have provided anyway as new ‘apprenticeships’. Although the Institute for Apprenticeships has been established to supervise standards and police this issue, without rigorous reviews of the schemes themselves there is a risk that the subsidies given to apprentice employers aren’t value for money, and are simply a means for employers to hire at far lower wages than they would otherwise.

This was highlighted by Iain Wright MP, Co-Chair of the Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy, who stated “too much training remains sub-standard and detrimental to the career of apprentices and, more widely, the performance of our economy. The success of the Government’s reforms will ultimately be judged on whether the planned increase in the quantity of apprenticeships is matched by an increase in their quality.”

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