Ken Kane is commercial director of Premier Partnership, one of the UK’s largest and fastest growing providers of apprenticeships to the public sector.

The Northern Powerhouse’s ‘Educating the North’ report, published back in February, was presented to the House of Commons Education Committee last week (2 May 2018). The report accuses Westminster-centric Governments of failing to focus on education and skills in the North, resulting in weaker economic growth, productivity, and prosperity. As a training and apprenticeship provider based in Doncaster (where only 54% of 11-year olds achieve the expected standard in reading, grammar, punctuation and spelling, and mathematics), this issue is very close to home for us.

Access to higher level skills for all

The report focuses heavily on addressing educational attainment from early years upwards, but it also identifies accelerating uptake of the Apprenticeship Levy and a focus on degree and higher-level apprenticeships as a major opportunity to achieve economic/social objectives and put the North of England on the map as a leader in this area.

In fact, the report introduces the idea of work experience, vocational learning and ‘on the job’ training as being core to closing the North/South skills gap from the age of 11 with employers offering placement opportunities as standard. This could be a key driver in helping to change the mindset of many parents, institutions, and employers that apprenticeships and vocational learning are somehow second-rate in comparison to more traditionally ‘academic’ alternatives. It is this mindset that leaves those without the academic capability or desire with a lack of opportunity.

The report says: “There is a significant need to help people who have missed out on access to the right skills when leaving school to move on from low-paid jobs – apprenticeships with their existing employer can be a viable route…There is a strong case for further investment in people currently unable to access apprenticeships and higher-level skills, and these groups should be prioritised in allocating any current and medium-term underspends in the apprenticeship levy until its take-up level increases.”

What the private sector can learn from the public sector

As one of the UK’s leading training and apprenticeship providers to the public sector we work with Local Authorities, Government departments, NHS Trusts, blue light organisations and other employers to help improve their organisational performance. Initiatives like the roll out of the Operational Delivery Profession (ODP) apprenticeship standard across the public sector and the introduction of new mandatory programmes like the Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (which we are going to be delivering as part of the Police Degree Apprenticeship Consortium) show a real commitment by public sector organisations to increasing the quality and efficiency of their service through investment in vocational skills. The difference between this and how the private sector has viewed the Apprenticeship Levy (with some employers treating it as a tax and take-up still being low) is the lack of ‘all in’ commitment to it and understanding of what the real benefits are.

So, what’s holding these private sector employers back? A lack of tangible evidence that meaningful use of the Apprenticeship Levy is anything more than a way of reclaiming funds lost by ‘ticking the box’? Perhaps. But looking at the results in the public sector in areas like ODP, the business case is clear. This isn’t a ‘nice to have’ or a social cause. No-one is asking Northern employers to simply do more to ‘give back’ to local communities and local people. Businesses are under increasing pressure to deliver better services to their customers, just as public sector organisations like the police are. Large scale use of Government-approved, employer-led apprenticeship standards will ensure that employees are not just trained to ‘do the job’ but are given a high quality, long term career path as part of a committed and skilled member of the team.

Embracing higher level apprenticeships and making them more accessible to a wider demographic (including older people and those from a diverse range of backgrounds) is a way of tapping into the untapped potential of those who haven’t excelled in school due to lack of investment in the education system, resulting in greater productivity and competitiveness for Northern businesses. For those employers outside of London/South East struggling to recruit and retain the best and brightest, this is a huge missed opportunity. Full commitment to offering routes into careers at all levels via apprenticeships and other forms of vocational training through formal long-term programmes is a big investment, but it is a sound commercial one.

We welcome the recommendations in the ‘Educating the North’ report around greater investment in and focus on early years and schools, but employers don’t have to wait until this systemic problem is ‘fixed’. Apprenticeship Levy funds are available NOW and they are not as difficult to access and maximise as many employers in both the public and private sectors may think.

The aspiration in the report for up to one in five Northern students to pursue degree and higher-level apprenticeships in the future is a big one. But, it is one we hope to be part of delivering.