The UK government should give cities and businesses more flexibility over apprenticeships

An apprentice at AirBus helps to build a plane. Image: Getty.

The theme of this year’s National Apprenticeships Week (NAW) was ‘Apprenticeships work’, and employers, apprentices and providers across the country gathered to showcase the success of the system.

This anecdotal evidence is also supported by more systematic evidence collected and analysed by organisations such as the What Works Centre. The data shows that apprenticeships have a positive impact for apprentices themselves, as well as for businesses and the wider economy.

However, if there’s widespread agreement that apprenticeships work, it is then also crucial to ensure the apprenticeships system works efficiently, so that more people can benefit from it. In a bid to boost the number of apprenticeships starts to 3m by 2020, the government overhauled the apprenticeships system by introducing new standards and the ‘Apprenticeship Levy’, which came into force in April last year.

This levy is a charge on larger employers to fund apprenticeships. It’s created a central pot of funding that large employers can access to pay for the schemes. (Government partially matches these funds, by making a 10 per cent contribution.)

But this change – which was meant to put employers in the driving seat – was welcomed with little enthusiasm by those very same employers. And, interestingly, the number of apprenticeships starts has been down since.

While it will take time to adjust to the new system and understand its full impact, there are some actions that national government and local leaders can take now to improve apprenticeships delivery within the system as it stands.

Complement the existing system with measures to target potential future apprentices

Financial incentives such as the levy are a way to improve take-up of the apprenticeship scheme by businesses, by ensuring they have a stake in the system. However, to improve the number of apprenticeships starts – especially among young people – interventions aimed at connecting them with apprenticeships opportunities are also needed.

For example, evidence from the What Works Centre toolkit suggests that mentoring has a positive impact on awareness and completion in countries such as Australia and the US. These mentoring schemes could easily be replicated across the UK at a little cost, and could help familiarise young people with apprenticeships and other opportunities they may have not heard of otherwise.

The launch of the ‘Mayor’s mentors’ project by Andy Street last May is hopefully a first – and not isolated – step in this direction. Furthermore, awareness around apprenticeships could be enhanced by giving local areas control over the levy underspend (employers have just two years to spend the levy, after which they lose control over this money). This could be used by local partners to raise awareness among students and businesses with initiatives such as Apprenticeships Hubs.

Give employers more flexibility to experiment with levy-transfer and pooling while ensuring quality and evaluation

One of the issues with the levy is that while it mandates large employers to spend money on skills training, it takes away freedom over how employers choose to deliver this training.

A way to introduce greater flexibility would be to allow businesses to pool their money together with other businesses to deliver apprenticeships. From April this year, businesses will be able to transfer 10 per cent of their levy to other businesses, if they feel they would benefit from this (e.g. to businesses in their supply chain).

This option could be explored further, by allowing employers to transfer or pool more than just 10 per cent of their levy. That would allow a number of businesses to club together to deliver a bigger programme than they could on their own, which has the potential to improve the quality of provision. A number of local authorities and businesses (such as universities) have already put forward proposals on this matter. It is now up to the government to use them as pilots to evaluate the impact of different approaches to apprenticeships provision.

Ensure the apprenticeship system is not disconnected from the wider technical education system and skills provision

A second way to introduce greater flexibility would be to allow the levy to be spent on technical education more broadly, rather than just apprenticeships.

By forcing businesses to invest in apprenticeships, there is a risk that they simply shift money previously allocated from other forms of training (which may be more appropriate for their needs) rather than increasing investment. Work by the Chartered Institute of Personne-l and Development suggests that a number of employers do intend to rebadge their spending.

Given that the aim of the levy is to increase and improve skills provision, we need to ensure businesses invest more resources into training, rather than simply switching from one form of training to another.

Apprenticeships aren’t the only successful way of delivering technical skills training. For this reason, the government should consider widening the apprenticeships levy into a skills levy, requiring employers to spend the money collected through the levy to offer apprenticeships or other forms of high-quality training.

Apprenticeships take-up varies across the country, and so do business needs. There is still much that the government can do to make the apprenticeship scheme – and the wider technical education system – work better for apprentices and businesses in cities across the country.

Putting in place measures to test and evaluate the above ideas would not only give us a better understanding of how an efficient skills system works. It would also give the government and businesses more tools to make a success out of technical education.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.