The claim

 “The best single long-term solution for rioting or young people who are moved to that kind of bad behaviour is to get them into work, and that means apprenticeships massively expanding. We have about…67,000 more than we did a year ago.”
Boris Johnson,6 August 2012

The background

This week marks the first anniversary of the riots that began in London and spread to other English cities last summer.

What is the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, doing to prevent a repeat performance? That was the question posed by BBC radio. You can listen to the full interview here.

Boris’s answers focused on increased investment to regenerate parts of London hit by looting and violence, and on tackling youth unemployment.

Echoing David Cameron, who has repeatedly hailed the government’s apparent success in pushing vocational training at a time of rising joblessness, Boris said 67,000 more apprenticeships had been created in the capital since last year.

Is that right? And are apprenticeships a magic solution to the problem of youth unemployment anyway?

The analysis

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is ultimately in charge of apprenticeships and keeps detailed figures on how many people sign up each year.

The government funds 100 per cent of training costs for 16-18-year-olds, half the cost for people aged 19-24 and a maximum of 50 per cent for over-25s. Employers bear the rest of the cost and are supposed to pay a minimum wage of £2.60 an hour.

Apprenticeships are defined by the government as “paid jobs that incorporate on and off the job training leading to nationally recognised qualifications”. That’s a pretty loose definition that doesn’t specify any minimum standards of quality or duration.

There’s no doubt that the numbers of placements have gone up sharply in recent years, in London and across England. BIS has handily summarised the stats for us in this table, which shows that London apprenticeships doubled from about 20,000 in 2009/10 to 40,000-odd in 2010/11.

In the UK as a whole starts climbed from 279,700 to 457,200 in the same period – a 63 per cent increase. That’s well ahead of government targets.

The provisional figure for London for the first nine months of the current academic year (August 2011 to April 2012) is 34,390 starts. That means we’re on course to beat last year’s total by a couple of thousand, although BIS says the final figure is likely be bigger as late results come in.

So there’s no evidence of a rise of the kind of magnitude Boris was talking about. There is only likely to be a small increase in starts between 2010/11 and 2011/12.

The mayor’s spokesman told us Boris didn’t really mean “67,000 more than we did a year ago”. He was talking about the total apprenticeships created in London since the coalition came to power in May 2010.

That would indeed be about 67,000, or slightly more, on these figures, but of course that timescale would include the large increase in the 2010/11 academic year. That trend of course predates the riots and some of it could arguably be credited to budgeting decisions made by the previous government.

So Boris was inaccurate on that point, but perhaps that was just a slip of the tongue.

More worryingly, given that his answer was substantially about youth unemployment, Boris forgot to mention the fact that a very large and increasing proportion of apprentices are not in fact young people.

Much of the rise in apprenticeships, nationwide and in London, is explained by the increasing popularity of training for the over-25s. Of the three age groups BIS looks at – 16-19, 19-24, and plus-25 – the oldest category is now the biggest one for the first time.

Apprenticeships went up by 75 per cent in London from 2005/06 to 2010/11 for under-19s (from 6,060 to 10,620) and by nearly 30,000 per cent for over-25s (60 to 17,810).

To put it another way, of the 41,400 apprenticeships created in the last academic year, only a quarter were for teenagers, compared to more than half in 2005/06.

The incomplete figures from the current figure show the trend continuing, with nearly twice as many starts for over-25s (15,660) as for under-19s (8,560).

So of the 67,000 apprenticeships claimed by Boris since the election, only about 22,000 were under 19 and roughly 26,000 were aged 19 to 24.

The bigger picture

Almost everyone, from the Labour party to the current government and the unions who are often the sternest critics of coalition policy, is in favour of boosting apprenticeships in principle.

The National Audit Office (NAO) suggested earlier this year that every £1 of public money spent on the scheme created an economic return of about £18 on average.

But there are serious doubts about the wisdom of relentlessly increasing the raw number of places without close scrutiny of the quality of the training on offer.

The surge in adult apprenticeships that we see in the figures may not necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise the question of whether firms are just using public money to subsidise in-house training for older employees that they would have done anyway.

This recent BIS study found that as many as 44 per cent of over-25s enrolled on apprenticeships would have got some training anyway in the absence of public funding.

An obvious concern is that all these new apprenticeships are not created equal. There’s a huge difference between a four-year stint at Rolls-Royce that lands you a respected qualification and 12 weeks learning to stack shelves at a supermarket.

The government has not been forthcoming so far with detailed figures on the average length of apprenticeships, but in February the NAO found evidence that they are getting shorter. In 2008/09, 12 per cent took six months or less, compared to 19 per cent in 2010/11.

There’s also evidence that some employers are taking public money then failing to carry out their side of the bargain on training and salary. A survey for the Low Pay Commission found that 20 per cent of apprentices said they were receiving no training at all, and about the same proportion may have been getting less than the minimum wage.

Skills minister John Hayes has now brought in a 12-month minimum length for all apprenticeships and ordered a review into standards, which presumably is a tacit acknowledgement that there have been problems in the past and a crackdown is due.

The verdict

Boris was wrong about creating 67,000 more apprenticeships than a year ago, and even if he had been right about the numbers, we would still want to look very carefully at whether a raw increase in numbers is quite the cause for celebration the government would have us believe.

Numbers may be up, spending may be up, and the percentage of apprentices finishing their courses may be up dramatically, but none of that matters very much if quality has been undermined.

And common sense suggests that if there is a 63 per cent increase in apprenticeships in one year but an increase in government spending of just 11.5 per cent over the same period, there must be some kind of overall compromise on quality.

In fairness to BIS, they have brought in a minimum apprenticeship length for the first time, and have commissioned entrepreneur Doug Richard to write an independent review of the programme. It should be ready this autumn.

By Patrick Worrall