His comments followed a report by the National Audit Office (NAO), which was largely negative on the Levy and its ability to offer value for money for the businesses that subscribe to it.
A criticism shared by both Fennell and the NAO was toward the Levy’s insistence on 20% of apprentices time spent off-site training.
“I know this rule is off putting for many employers in the food industry and there is no evidence to suggest more time away from work equals a better apprenticeship,” he said.
“Indeed, I would rather have 10% of good quality on and off the job training for my apprentice than 20% – equal to a day a week – of less good possibly drawn out training. It’s a nonsensical policy that is proving almost impossible to police.”
Fennell didn’t find it all too surprising that that levy employers were electing for higher-level apprenticeships instead of Level 2 and 3 programmes.
Weighted towards Level 4
“The funding for Level 4 & above apprenticeships is so attractively weighted it is hardly surprising that many larger employers – not just those in the food industry – are replacing old graduate type schemes with new management apprenticeships,” said Fennell.
He argued that the Government needed to rebalance the funding and incentives made available for smaller businesses to take on apprentices. Under the Levy, these businesses would have to pay wages, contribute 10% to the cost of training, arrange for apprentices to spend 20% of their time off the job and help prepare them for the new type of end-point examinations.
“That’s a big ask for a small company and again no surprise that Level 2 apprentices are down on previous years in terms of starts,” Fennell added.
“To some extent the butchery industry is bucking the trend with over 600 starts in the past 12 months, however large and small meat businesses have benefitted from a relatively healthy funding rate of £9,000 that enables great training to take place. The Government must continue to support these rates for butchers, bakers and food operators going forward.”
Another point of contention for both Fennell and the NAO was the level of quality assurance for the level of training provided to apprentices, as well as the assessments that they must take at the end of their apprenticeships.
‘Poses a risk’
“This interests me as FDQ is one of 215 examination bodies now approved to deliver services for apprentices and I agree the system in its current state is largely unregulated and that poses a risk to the capacity, capability and consistency of delivery across the sector,” said Fennell.
“At FDQ we have delivered over 100 of the new style independent exams to a range of food businesses and whilst our standards are very high the government is failing to adequately police or compare the quality assurance across the system.”
Despite his criticisms of the Levy, Fennell said it provided a framework that could and should be improved over time.
“That said, the reformed apprenticeship with end point assessments are better and more robust than previous frameworks when delivered correctly so it’s about evolution of policy to build on the good parts and tackle some of the aforementioned weaknesses,” he concluded.
“Last thing we want is another reform to apprenticeships, they are going in the right direction and the Government just needs to listen take stock of the early findings and build improvements.”
The NSA’s view
“As we identified in our recent Apprenticeship report to the Food and Drink sector council, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are at risk of being left behind in the system. At present, small and medium-sized enterprises SMEs do not pay the Levy and so don’t have their ‘own’ funding pots, they are totally reliant on providers who have been successful in gaining special contracts to work with them.
“Not all of these providers have the specialist capability to deliver an apprenticeship to food businesses and so this mismatch can result in SMEs being unable to access the new standards at all.
“The food industry is further ahead than many other sectors with employers taking ownership of this problem by working together with the National Skills Academy – particularly in recognising great provision as ‘Industry Approved’. Further proposals are being developed to look at how providers can support SMEs better in the sector.”
Justine Fosh, chief executive, the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink