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Discussing the apprenticeships evidence base with Stefan Wolter

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We held the first in what we hope will be a series of expert roundtable discussions last week at Centre for Cities. We took advantage of the fact that Stefan Wolter was in town for a seminar at CVER. We wanted to hear about Stefan’s work and discuss the evidence base around apprenticeships with UK experts. In particular, we wanted to understand how we might go about filling gaps in our evidence and policy knowledge.

Professor Wolter’s work covers all aspects of apprenticeships, and he is one of the world experts in this field. During his talk he looked in depth at how companies think about apprenticeships: an area we know surprisingly little about. In spite of their insistence that decisions about whether or not to use apprentices were not made on a financial basis, the evidence — from Switzerland and Germany — told a different story. Details cost-benefit analysis quantifying the impact of apprentices on the bottom line showed that companies were acting in line with their financial best interest. Overall, companies who ran apprenticeships had a net benefit from the programme, and those that did not would have seen net costs.

There were three questions we had in mind for our convened experts:

  • Do you agree with what we have in the evidence reviews and toolkits that we have produced about best practice in apprenticeships policy? If not, why not? Do we need to update our work to reflect new evidence?
  • Are there additional toolkits that we could produce? For example, other approaches with enough existing evidence?
  • Which evidence gaps are the most important to fill, and how could this be done?

Because apprenticeship systems differ substantially across countries, comparative work is particularly challenging here. Our experts spent a requisite amount of time bemoaning the inadequacy of UK apprenticeship programmes in comparison to the Swiss approach (summed up by Professor Wolter as ‘not poorly-paid employees, but extremely well-paid students’).

In the end we agreed that there are number of gaps in our evidence base which might be relatively easy to study and would provide especially valuable insights. These include:

  • Better understanding of whether associating a qualification with apprenticeships would improve completion rates, and improve the overall outcomes for apprentices;
  • Better knowledge about how companies in the UK think about apprenticeships, and how to encourage them to establish programmes and invest in making them worthwhile;
  • Testing links from apprenticeships to productivity rather than wages, especially in socially vital sectors — like social care — where wages are low;
  • Comparing apprenticeship outcomes for school leavers vs. existing workers; for the latter group, are other forms of employment training more effective?
  • As skills powers are devolved, working with larger employers on mentoring models, and local scheme certification;
  • On the data side, finding ways to combine LEO and IDBR/HMRC data platforms.

We want to develop trials to fill one or more of these gaps. Please get in touch if you have any ideas that might help.