Government revamps apprentices strategy to help plug skills gaps

New plan emphasises need to improve credentials in STEM fields

Credit: Greg Plominski from Pixabay

Departments are being told to adopt an “apprenticeships first” approach to recruitment over the coming year and ensure they hit a target of recruiting apprentices equivalent to 2.3% of their workforce. But a new strategy document published by the Cabinet Office says the government is “revising its approach” to apprentices.

More than four years on from the launch of the original apprenticeship strategy that set the 2.3% target and sought the creation of 30,000 new government apprenticeships by 2020, the Cabinet Office said it was time to revise Whitehall’s approach to on-the-job training.

The document, published at the end of last month, said a “strong pipeline” of civil service apprentices was “fundamental” to the government’s ambitions to level up less prosperous parts of the UK and speed recovery from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

It added that apprenticeships were also essential to close skills gaps in technical professions, such as data science and analytics.

“Our apprenticeship strategy will continue to focus on ensuring that all our civil servants have excellent opportunities to develop the right skills at the required levels,” it said. “This will be delivered by using current apprenticeship standards and development of others where there is the identification of specific capability and skills gaps within the Civil Service such as universal administrative core abilities and areas where highly technical expertise is required including the civil service’s grasp of science and data.”  

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It said the original 2.3% ambition for new-starter apprentices would be carried forward in the current financial year. But it added that the Cabinet Office would work in parallel with the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to “review the civil service’s approach to apprenticeships and which elements – as an employer – have the most bearing on quality”.

The document said the review would take into account the relevance of training provided; the value of outsourcing; speed of progression for apprentices and the alignment of programmes with T Level industrial placements for 16-to-19-year-olds; and work placements and internships.

In a foreword to the document, parliamentary secretary to the Cabinet Office Julia Lopez and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm said it was now time for the apprenticeships strategy – which originally sprang from a 2015 general election manifesto pledge – to be “fully embedded” across the civil service.

“As the department with responsibility for the whole civil service, we are delighted with what has been achieved over the past five years including the delivery of the government target of 30,000 starts by the end of March 2021,” they said. “This increases our drive to see this strategy fully embedded across the civil service, ensuring the increase of skills for our civil servants, creating opportunities across the whole of the UK and leading the way for the public sector. We recognise that only by doing so can we build a country, economy and society that works for all.”

‘Quality and rigour’
In February this year the Labour Party accused departments of failing to deliver on their apprenticeship obligations. It said 11 out of 17 departments that provided data had failed to hit the target of delivering apprentice places equivalent to 2.3% of their staff numbers. Some departments were accused of failing even to get above 1%.

The new apprenticeships strategy said the apprentices figure was 2.1% in 2019/20, which it said demonstrated “year-on-year growth”. It did not provide a figure for the 2020/21 financial year.

However, it said HR leaders were now keen to measure the apprenticeships programme’s success “beyond a numerical target”. It said that now apprenticeships had become “well established and integrated across government”, the need to “focus on quality and rigour” had become increasingly important.

Areas of focus include embedding apprenticeships; accountability and governance; branding and marketing; contract management; and effective measurement.

According to the document, work to properly embed apprenticeships will involve departments creating “early talent strategies” to shape strategic thinking on resourcing and deliver workforce projections that identify apprenticeship roles.

The work will also involve cross-departmental approaches on wider strategies, such as estates or diversity and inclusion.

On contract management, the strategy sets the ambitions of increasing the accountability of learning providers for the quality of provision they deliver,  and also increasing the pool of available training providers to give departments more choice about who to use.

In relation to effective measurement, the strategy says the Cabinet Office needs to “develop and embed” high-quality data-protection across the civil service to improve tracking data for apprentices and give a better understanding of where staff go after they complete their training.


Sam Trendall

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