Expanding the provision of apprenticeships needs to be accompanied by rigorous evaluation to determine their value.
This week’s Budget restated the government’s commitment to apprenticeships, and there are some considerable claims made about their economic value. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, for example, suggested that every pound invested in level 2 apprenticeships returns £26 to the UK economy (that’s £28 for level 3 apprenticeships). Elsewhere, surveys have found that employers report benefits in productivity, competition and employee retention from taking on apprentices. But of these claims, which can, and should, we believe?
The answer is that we should be very cautious about these sorts of claims – but that there are also some grounds for optimism. That was the result of the evidence review on apprenticeships undertaken by the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, who sifted through more than 1,250 policy evaluations to answer just that question. 27 of those studies met their minimum standards for impact evaluation, finding that:
But it also found that there are significant gaps in our knowledge. There are some considerable challenges associated with capturing all the external factors in apprenticeships, and so the evidence that we do have is very limited. Some of the questions that we still don’t know include:
The questions that remain after the results of the evidence review are big ones. A commitment to more rigorous evaluation of apprenticeships in the UK would be useful in two ways:
Firstly, better knowledge could support strategic decision-making as to the sorts of apprenticeships that should be created in the UK, as well as where they should go. Government policy is blind when it comes to the type of apprenticeships that should be created: the three million target makes no distinction on grounds of quality, other than the requirements set out in frameworks and standards, and leaves it to those responsible for delivering apprenticeships to establish the details. But what sector should those apprenticeships be in? Who should they be open to – from what ages, and which social and educational backgrounds? Should we be focusing on creating higher and degree level apprenticeships, or are there more gains to be had from level 2 and 3 apprenticeships? And how should these factors differ across different UK cities, particularly bearing in mind the north-south geographical divide in apprenticeship starts that exists across the UK? We need more evidence to be able to support apprenticeship strategy across the UK.
Secondly, better knowledge could help to make a clear case for apprenticeships in order to challenge negative perceptions of their value and relevance that continue to be held by employers, young people and their parents. This is one of the most substantial challenges that local partners face in creating new apprenticeships. But addressing long-standing perceptions about vocational education as a substandard route into work, or as a type of training only relevant to certain sectors and industries, is no easy task. This week is National Apprenticeships Week, a celebration of apprenticeships which has an important role to play in addressing these perceptions. Without the strong case for the value of apprenticeships, however, this will remain a challenge.
Changing perceptions about apprenticeships is one of the key themes in a report that Centre for Cities will be publishing in April, which looks at examples of how local partners, from Chambers of Commerce to Local Enterprise Partnerships, can play a more proactive role in meeting some of the issues thrown up by the current and future apprenticeships system.
And later in the year, the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth will be publishing their toolkit on apprenticeships. Like their recent toolkit on Employment Training, it will provide policy design guides which can help policymakers to make informed, evidence based decisions on apprenticeships.
But evidence based policy-making requires evidence, and over the next few years as the national apprenticeship system goes through some considerable changes, we have a golden opportunity to undertake some rigorous evaluation on the value that apprenticeships can have on firms, apprentices and local economies. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t go wasted.
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