A long, long time ago / 

I can still remember how / 

The Apprenticeship Levy came into effect at the start of the 2017/18 UK tax year on 6th April 2017.

This laboured Don McLean reference is a great example of how a flimsy pun requires a hell of a lot of reverse engineering to work. Because unlike McLean’s levee, the apprenticeship levy is anything but dry.

There’s billions in there. So why have apprenticeships failed to hit targets in the UK despite all this investment and push from Government?

At time of writing, skills minister Anne Milton is addressing the Association of Employment and Learning Providers annual conference, and today she has acknowledged that it remains difficult to pinpoint one cause.

As ever, far be it from me to claim to know the answer, but for every challenge being discussed on the agenda I think there’s a common solution: better communications.

According to a vote among the hundreds of delegates at the conference, the biggest barrier to delivery of more apprenticeships is the 20% off-the-job training element, although Milton maintains that this is the lowest figure across the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (an intergovernmental economic organisation with 37 member countries).

Disagreements are also still raging over whether or not the Government is right to stand by the mandatory 10% contribution from SME employers. This means employers of over 50 people but not big enough to be levy-payers have to pay 10% of fees per apprentice trained. Milton asserted today that it is difficult to prove that this is the cause for slow apprenticeship start numbers, while AELP chief Mark Dawe hit back that the problem is lack of demand – and that his organisation will continue to campaign vigorously against the 10% rule.

A third challenge about which Milton has been very vocal is the surprising lack of knowledge or understanding among employers large and small, including those who have already paid large sums into the levy since its introduction last year.

Now here’s my suggestion – and it won’t come as a surprise:

PR.

The whole post-16 learning sector has an opportunity here, but needs to get better at communicating the benefits of apprenticeships to employers, learners, and the UK economy.

If there’s a lack of knowledge or understanding, then the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions need to do their bit to change that.

FE colleges, for their part, are rapidly getting better at employer engagement – but this still generally tends to be only within the local areas they serve, rather than communicating a consistent message nationally.

And in the private sector, private training providers – who either compete with or subcontract apprenticeship delivery from FE colleges – need to put out a stronger message too.

Finally, the EdTech sector (an area particularly close to my heart) is missing a trick too. The apprenticeship levy has opened up a vast new world of opportunities for end point assessment and e-portfolio technology, remote learning platforms and evidence capture.

There are so many positive stories that currently just aren’t getting told. Why aren’t providers hammering the message that the 10% contribution rule can be an absolute bargain? Why aren’t they explaining that the 20% off-the-job rule doesn’t necessarily mean a day a week out of the workplace? Why haven’t Government and the media made more of the point that the levy isn’t a tax, it’s an investment – not only for the companies paying into it, but for our entire economy and society?

The fault does not lie at any one door, but the solution is a collective responsibility. It’s time, in the words of Don McLean, “we all got up to dance.”