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Manifesto Check: Conservatives fudge the numbers on apprenticeships

More apprentices but are they better off? Ben Birchall/PA

Welcome to The Conversation’s Manifesto Check, where academics from across the UK subject each party’s manifesto to unbiased, expert scrutiny.

The Conservative manifesto skates over some uncomfortable truths about the development of apprenticeship during their last five years in office. True, as stated in the manifesto, 2.2 million new apprenticeships (apprenticeship starts) were registered between 2009/10 and 2013/14. However, of those starting an apprenticeship in this period, 850,000 were adults aged 25 or over.

In fact, the Coalition government presided over and encouraged a huge increase in adult apprenticeships while numbers of 16-18 year olds in apprenticeship barely changed year on year. Most of those on adult apprenticeships were already in employment and a House of Commons Select Committee found that many adult apprenticeships offered poor value for money. It is, therefore, depressing to see a bland promise of apprenticeship numbers trumpeted in the manifesto – 3 million over the next five years – with no preference for young people and no commitment to higher quality.

The manifesto gives the impression that governments can conjure apprenticeships out of thin air. We know this is not the case. But the only manifesto proposal for encouraging employers to make the offer of an apprenticeship is a cut in employers’ National Insurance contributions for apprentices.

Employers can already access a government subsidy for taking on young apprentices but demand from young people for apprentice places continues to outstrip supply. It is unlikely that this marginal additional inducement will make much difference to numbers offering places to young people. It may well encourage more employers to offer apprenticeships to their employees. Giving employers “more control over apprenticeship courses” could help to raise standards and add more value but these new trailblazer apprenticeships demand more of employers than the current offer and could make it more difficult for small employers to participate.

Two proposals specifically target developing the skills of young people. The manifesto proposes to “continue to replace lower level, classroom-based Further Education courses” with apprenticeships. This was put forward in the Wolf Review of Vocational Education published in 2011. As the report showed, low-level vocational courses are of little value on the labour market.

The remedy, however, is not to replace them with low-level apprenticeships but to prepare young people better in full-time Further Education to access high quality apprenticeships when they are ready – a policy successfully followed in Germany. A second proposal, under which unemployed young people will have to “take an apprenticeship, traineeship or do daily community work for their benefits” casually ignores the fact that apprenticeships are paid employment and not a punishment. What better way of lowering status and quality?

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