Give mayors bigger role in apprenticeships – report

A greater role for mayors in boosting England’s struggling apprenticeship system, which is failing ‘red wall’ constituencies in the north and Midlands in particular, is recommended in a report from the centre-right think tank ‘Onward’ today.

There were 200,000 fewer apprenticeship starts, down over 25%, in 2019, just before the pandemic, than at their peak in 2011, according to Onward’s report Course Correction.

Every constituency in the north except two in Yorkshire & the Humber has seen apprenticeship starts drop compared to 2011 while the places where apprenticeships have become more common include Wimbledon, Tooting, Richmond Park, Battersea and Chelsea and Fulham, all in London.

The fall has been most acute in the red wall seats which have lost a third of the apprenticeship starts they had in 2011, double the fall of London constituencies at just 17%, says the report.

The difference experiences of London and the north are exemplified in the constituencies of West Ham in London and Bishop Auckland in County Durham. In 2004 around 18% of people in both areas were qualified to NVQ level 4 or higher but by 2018, 50% of West Ham’s residents were educated to degree level while in Bishop Auckland the figure was just 33%.

Apprenticeships should be the central focus of post-16 education policy, the report recommends: ‘Apprenticeships matter because they offer an opportunity to develop skills and secure a job, without attending university or moving away from home.

‘They also support broad-based economic growth by increasing the supply of technical workers in typically more productive, R&D intensive and geographically dispersed sectors like manufacturing and construction.‘

‘They are most relevant to, and resonate with, the kind of places that the government is trying to level up – towns with a strong manufacturing tradition, where the idea of a lifelong vocation and a stable wage were once ubiquitous and are now rare’.

‘If apprenticeships continue the course they are on’, adds the report, they will not be the “supreme leveller upper” – to use the Prime Minister’s words – that they should be. At present, apprenticeships are training up people in richer parts of England while opportunities for poorer towns across the Midlands, north and coastal communities are withering away. The risk is that people are missing out on high paid jobs and their towns are missing out on the best way to boost their productivity and earnings’.

Among the report’s recommendations for tackling this problem is a greater role for mayors such as Jamie Driscoll in North of Tyne and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, who already control devolved adult education budgets. But there is no such mayor for the area between the Tyne and the Tees.

The report says: ‘Mayors should be given more responsibility in the apprenticeships system for supporting small businesses in recruiting apprentices and held to account for driving up numbers. Mayors and combined authorities have had success to date in supporting the apprenticeship system…The role of Mayors can be extended further…

‘Through their use of the adult education budget, mayors have shown they have the potential to combine the scale of a regional economy with agile local delivery…

‘To develop a model that can be scaled out across the country, SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) apprenticeship brokering should be a key element of the trailblazer devolution deals being agreed with the West Midlands and Greater Manchester combined authorities.

‘If successful, this approach should be rolled out through county deals [such as County Durham] and negotiations for further devolution with other combined authorities [such as the North East]. A devolved approach would see mayors tasked with developing an apprenticeships brokering service, building on their existing responsibilities for business support and their role in facilitating Apprenticeship Levy transfer…Mayors would receive funding for this role in return for agreeing target numbers for apprentices in SMEs in their area.

‘In fulfilling this role, mayors would work closely with sector bodies, chambers of commerce, and others as part of their broader role in economic development. It would also enable them to direct SMEs towards providers which produce good outcomes and high achievement rates using knowledge of training providers in the combined authority.’