Take-up of apprenticeships '˜is creeping back', claims Minister

Apprenticeship uptake is 'creeping back up' in the wake of reforms, the Government's Skills Minister has stressed, amid suggestions there is 'still a mountain to climb' when it comes to delivering industry needs.

Anne Milton

The number of new apprenticeships in England fell by 25 per cent over the past year, it has emerged, after leaders at West Yorkshire Combined Authority warned that this figure was even higher for parts of the region.

Company leaders, at the Institute of Directors, have said that the figures demonstrate how apprenticeship starts have still not recovered since the introduction of a Government levy, arguing there is still much to be done.

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But Apprenticeships and Skills Minister Anne Milton, visiting Leeds yesterday to meet with new nursing apprentices, said the key focus should be on a quality of training on offer, rather than on the volume of those taking it up.

Financial services firms were employing thousands on new, high-quality apprenticeships, the Government has stressed, with Ms Milton adding that this had far exceeded expectations.

“We know that when reforms came in, this was a big change, quite significant for employers, for training providers and for further education,” said Ms Milton. “We knew there would be a dip –because there was a spike beforehand. We knew the figures would drop – but they are now creeping back up again. If we look at the uptake on apprenticeships with standards, it far exceeds what we expected having gone up 40 per cent. It’s not just about numbers, it’s about quality.”

Former nurse Ms Milton, visiting St James’ Hospital to meet with 20 degree apprentices, said such ‘non-traditional’ routes opened up career opportunities to those who may otherwise have missed out. The scheme, aimed at helping nurses further their careers as well as bridging a skills gap, sees 20 nurses working on the wards as they progress towards an adult nursing degree over the course of four years.

Meeting with those working towards their formal qualifications, Ms Milton heard their stories including that of mother-of-two Louise Edwards, from Castleford, who has returned to training at the age of 37 and describes the opportunity as “life-changing”.

“It’s absolutely fantastic, and at the heart of all of this is making sure that we continue to improve patient care,” said Ms Milton. “They come with life skills, with children and mortgages, and in terms of empathising with patients, they have those skills. We often hear about skills shortages. What we now see is NHS trusts backing the apprenticeship programme so that they have got a skilled workforce coming through.

“Leeds NHS Trust gets the gold standard. They are doing a fabulous job. The commitment, and enthusiasm, is overwhelming.”

Ms Milton’s visit came as research suggested the education system needs to change to better support flexible learning, as the number of people studying part-time across the UK dropped by more than a third over the last six years. Universities UK, looking at ‘lost learners’ found the primary concern was over tuition fees and a lack of flexibility to fit around life commitments.

Dr Helen Smith, director of student education in the school of healthcare at the University of Leeds, said schemes such as the apprenticeship one are “absolutely critical” to enabling people to ‘earn while they work’.

“What the apprenticeship programme has done is provided an alternative route into nursing for those who may not otherwise have the chance,” she said.