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Johnson promises apprenticeship ‘opportunity’

Image: Michael Tubi, via Shutterstock

Prime minister stops short of making apprenticeship ‘guarantee’

Prime minister Boris Johnson has offered every young person in England an “opportunity guarantee”, saying that they should all have access to an apprenticeship or an in-work placement.

Speaking in Dudley on 30 June, Johnson said that as the economy recovers from the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, “the jobs that many people had in January are not coming back”.

“We know that’s the biggest economic challenge that we face and so we will also offer an ‘opportunity guarantee’, so that every young person has the chance of an apprenticeship or in-work placement so that they maintain the skills and confidence they need to find the job that is right for them.”

It marks a shift in language from earlier this month when, on 3 June, Johnson said in a Covid-19 press conference that it was “going to be vital that we guarantee apprenticeships”.

Elsewhere in his speech, Johnson said that while the country had “umpteen fantastic, globally outstanding universities…too many degree courses are not now delivering value”.

“I want to end the current injustice that means a pupil from a London state school is now 50 per cent more likely to go to a top university than a pupil from the west midlands,” he added.

It comes as Robert Halfon, conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons education committee—who first mooted the idea of an “apprenticeship guarantee”—set out how such a guarantee might operate. Speaking at an event hosted by the Edge Foundation on 30 June, Halfon said that “with evangelisation from the prime minister, with detailed policy worked through by the government, think tanks and pressure groups, we must be able to come up with a really exciting apprenticeship offer for young people”.

According to Halfon’s plans, universities should work towards “a target of 50 per cent of their students undertaking degree-level apprenticeships”. The government should also “radically expand” degree apprenticeships and reform the apprenticeship levy so that “much more can be used for degree apprentices”.

Meanwhile, the levy should be rebalanced so that it is spent “primarily on apprenticeships for 16-to-24-year-olds and to tackle disadvantage”, and there should also be a “massive increase” in public sector apprenticeship opportunities.

Halfon is also calling for a decrease in the “red tape” that makes it harder for small businesses to engage with the apprenticeship scheme, and he says that the £3 billion National Skills Fund should be “used towards covering training costs and the first year of salary costs for small and medium businesses taking on young apprentices”.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former adviser to the Treasury, questioned the extent to which any improved apprenticeship offer could accurately be termed a “guarantee”—a word that the prime minister pointedly couched in terms of an ‘opportunity guarantee’ rather than an ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ in his speech today.

“I admire Halfon pushing this and being ambitious but it’s still not a guarantee,” Westwood said. “It’s an increased and more focused offer—both of which I support—and has welcome acknowledgement that employers, probably through wage subsidy, are the key element.

“But to say it’s a guarantee isn’t right. What happens when someone still can’t get the apprenticeship they want? I don’t think we should be overloading apprenticeships with language and expectations when it can’t be delivered, and nor should we be promising outcomes or programmes that might not happen.”

Toby Perkins, Labour’s shadow apprenticeships minister, told Research Professional News that Halfon’s proposals were “hugely welcome and timely”.

“He makes some really interesting suggestions, but I would caution him, as I do the prime minister, that paying for training is not the same as ‘guaranteeing apprenticeships’ in a diminishing jobs market,” Perkins added.