The collapse in apprenticeships was predicted. Now it’s happened

Guardian Web |

Somewhere in my attic there is a fading, yellowing scroll with a candle-wax seal handed to me for signature in 1982. It detailed a bargain between me and South Essex Recorders, part of Home Counties Newspapers, trading in this instance as the Newham Recorder in east London. I’m still not sure who got the best of the deal: for five years they couldn’t sack me – unless in extremis – and I couldn’t leave.

Like many journalists of my generation, I was an apprentice. I didn’t go to university – I had the grades, I just didn’t want to study any more. I did a year at college and then learned from a roomful of brilliant, crazy, boozy, massively supportive older journalists. I’m for everyone who wants to go to university. Journalism now is full of those who did so. But I’m also for apprenticeships.

I thought the government was for apprenticeships too. To have fewer of them when ministers advocate them is unfortunate. To have the number of apprenticeships started between May and July down 61% compared with the same time last year is pretty awful. To find that, according to provisional figures from the Department for Education, the number of people under 19 starting apprenticeships has fallen by 41% compared with this time last year, seems full-on disastrous.



Worse still, the wound seems self-inflicted. The Federation of Small Businesses points out that the drop coincides with a rule change that meant, for the first time, a mandatory financial contribution from the employer “and a greater focus on levy-paying businesses over smaller employers”. Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, told FE Week : “Sadly we saw these numbers coming … What is needed are changes that will restore incentives for employers to recruit young apprentices.”

Related: UK apprenticeship funding changes attacked by Labour

Whitehall says this is the early effect of clever reforms “putting control back into the hands of employers so they will gain the skilled workforce they need to compete globally”.

And you may buy that. But to me it looks like another attempt by government to resile from a social, moral and financial responsibility. It’s the government that complains about our education deficiencies and the skills shortage. It’s the government that stewards a system whereby those who go to university shoulder fees of £9,000 a year. It’s the government that took away maintenance grants for lower income students. It’s the government that talks of an economy where everyone – not just those with wealthy parents – fulfils their potential. It’s the government that bemoans the lack of the kind of social mobility that occurs when people have jobs and marketable skills. It’s a government, it would seem, that cannot join up its own dots.

It’s not an eye-catching issue, but I hope there will be a fuss. Already the CBI has called for urgent changes; Labour’s spokesman complains of a shambles.

We know this by now to be a government with shambles to the right of it and fiascos to the left, but even a minister unable to walk straight and chew gum must realise how directly this collapse in apprentice numbers impacts on everything the government claims as a philosophy. We are for those who want to better themselves, they say. Then they rob ordinary youngsters of the chance to do just that. This lot is well trained in hypocrisy.

Hugh Muir is a Guardian columnist

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