Proposals in Chancellor George Osborne's autumn statement mean big changes in further education, at a time when the sector is already dealing with significant and complicated reforms. But this autumn statement moves the focus away from colleges and training providers and on to businesses and their responsibilities to our nation's young people and apprentices.
Probably the most significant proposal announced in the autumn statement was to make it cheaper for businesses to employ young people. From 2015, businesses won't have to pay national insurance contributions for their workers who are under the age of 21 and who earn less than £813 week (basically all <21s). The Treasury estimate this will save a business around £355 per young worker on average.To me, this is a major policy shift that attempts to turn around our country's shameful record of consistently high youth unemployment. But tax incentives are only part of the picture, there obviously has to be jobs first. I say this, because it's always been cheaper to employ young people, particularly in the kind of 'first-job' jobs in sectors like retail and hospitality, because the national minimum wage is banded according to age up until the age of 21. Therefore, if you run a business and already employ young people on one of the 'young person' minimum wage brackets, why not use the national insurance tax break to remove the age inequality in your pay structure and pay your young workers (at least) the full minimum wage?
I hope as well that by removing national insurance contributions for under-21s, more businesses will buck the trend and provide more apprenticeship opportunities to young people. The vast majority of apprentices in this country of over the age of 25, and its in this age group where the bulk of the growth in apprenticeships comes from. This is great news, because upskilling and getting qualifications benefits everyone no matter how old you are. But what a lot of people don't realise is that the number of 16-19 year olds doing apprenticeships is actually in decline. In fact, of the 870,000 apprentices in England in 12/13 only one in five of them were aged under 19. There are fewer apprentices under the age of 19 now than when the last government left office; which doesn't really tally up with the rhetoric we get from the coalition government on the topic.
Just like there is a known and (broadly) respected route through GCSEs - Alevels to get to higher education, so too must there be an equally well known and respected route through a vocational path to get to higher education. Too often, people confuse 'higher education' with 'going to uni full time to do an undergraduate degree.' They're quite simply no longer the same. The Autumn Statement provided funding for an additional 20,000 degree-level higher apprenticeships, It's important not to get too carried away here. Whilst it's true that higher apprenticeships have increased, there's still a long way to go to provide the level of choice that prospective university students enjoy. There are currently around 13,000 higher apprentices, so what we need now is businesses to be providing the frameworks and employment opportunities to make the most of this £40million boost.
Employer bodies regularly take opportunities to berate the education system for not providing young people with the skills that they need for their businesses. But surely their businesses are the best place to learn those skills? Further proposals in the autumn statement mean that employers will have even more control over apprentice training, and the purchasing power to choose a college or training provider that best meets their needs. The excuses really are running out.