The number of responses that Gillian Keegan makes regarding apprenticeship questions is huge in the House of Commons. She regularly responds to similar questions from MPs representing all of the political parties in Parliament with similar answers. It may well be that her response on Thursday to Helen Hayes, the Labour Shadow Cabinet Minister has occurred on previous occasions. However I spotted some words in that answer that raised a serious concern in my understanding of the challenges that businesses like the one I am involved in has. So the question was as follows:
To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what recent assessment he has made of the potential merits of devolving apprenticeship provision to local and regional government.
Now to be clear, this question was not intended to help businesses understand what is going on, it was a intended for local and regional governments. The reality is that either Helen Hayes is a bit out of touch with the current arrangements compared to the past (over 10 years ago) or she is anticipating the future. The simple fact is that there is no regional governments as far as most people are aware. I guess perhaps there are regional governments and they are simply remaining hidden from most people. However my concern was not in this rather strange question but the beginning of Gillian Keegan’s answer.
Apprenticeships are a national programme which give employers access to high quality skills provision throughout England to meet their current and future skills needs.
Individual employers already have direct control over their apprenticeships, and levy payers are able to use their funds as they choose, either to fund apprenticeships in their own business or in smaller businesses in their supply chain or local area. We will work with employers to improve the transfer process, making it easier for them to find smaller employers to receive transfers and make full use of their levy funds. In doing so we will build on successful regional pilot schemes, such as those by the West Midlands Combined Authority and the London Progression Collaboration, who are supporting local employers in the retail, hospitality, and construction sectors.
So the first sentence or paragraph is the one that makes very little sense, based on all of the experience that our company and many other companies in a range of industries have. That said if we take the last five words in the second paragraph, that then makes a lot more sense. We have worked extensively with Further Education agencies in Sussex where we are based and indeed where Gillian is based, as the Chichester MP. All of the Further Education provision is able to provide training and support local employers involved in the MAIN STREAM Retail, Hospitality and Construction Sectors. However there are many other sectors or broader parts of those sectors that are incapable of getting training for their potential apprentices. It is this reality that our Minister and local Sussex MP seems to be unaware of, or is unwilling to acknowledge.
I recall attending a Construction Sector Breakfast meeting about 6 years ago that was set up by a very good Further Education establishment that wanted (and still wants) to link up with businesses that could take on their apprentices. I sat beside a person who runs a double glazing business and opposite a person who runs a wooden hut business and none of us could find any training courses that would get anywhere close to our business requirement skills. Inevitably there were not many mainstream construction sector people present because they are already very happy with the training provided by such colleges to people who are potential electricians, carpenters or brick type builders, depending on what the company needs. The problem is that most people who want to buy our products or indeed would want to buy a wooden hut for their garden or double glazing for their home will require people who have some of the building skills and some of the other skills, involving 2-3 courses along with the specialist skills that come from the industry itself. In our case we need some of the electrical skills, some of the building skills and also some IT skills which are also included in the college. If we could get that far from the training sector, we could then add in the specialist elements. The wooden hut company needs some of the building skills, some of the carpentry skills and because most people want their huts with electrical elements they also need some of the electrical skills. The double glazing industry needs some of the building training but not where it is purely focused on brick work.
Since that Breakfast meeting we have spent many hours with the further educational training agency trying to find a way for them to make their skill provisions more modular so that we can send our our staff and indeed invite new staff to go through the relevant parts of the various courses that already exist. There is no way of recruiting apprentices who have done more than one full course as each course takes time and costs money and yet none of the courses provide a wide enough range of skills. The colleges cannot make the courses modular because that would cost them money to dramatically change the structure of their various courses and unless people complete the courses, the colleges will not get the funding from the Government. So this is where the Government led by Ministers such as Gillian Keegan needs to radically change their approach to apprenticeships for businesses that are not able to benefit from the existing mainstream courses. Perhaps one day the Education Committee led by Robert Halfon or the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee led by Darren Jones will pick up this theme and try to influence Gillian Keegan and her colleagues or perhaps one day she will ask some of the local Sussex businesses what they need to make apprenticeships workable for their companies.