This article appears as part of the Lessons to Learn newsletter.

At the end of March, the Scottish Training Federation (STF) issued a press release that made a quite extraordinary claim: a freeze on new modern apprenticeships across the whole of Scotland from 1 April 2024.

The organisation then took to social media this week, tweeting a link to their press release with the statement: No new Modern Apprenticeships in Scotland for the foreseeable future. There are more than 100 different types of modern apprenticeship available in Scotland – or at least there are when the system is running – allowing people to “work, earn and learn”, and tens of thousands are started every year. You could become a lift engineer, a digital projects administrator, a childcare assistant, a project manager – the list goes on and on.

So why have these programmes been frozen in Scotland? According to the STF, Skills Development Scotland (SDS) was still waiting for budget confirmation from the Scottish Government. They added that until the budget is approved, “SDS is unable to issue contracts to the training providers, colleges and employers who deliver Modern Apprenticeships, resulting in a freeze on new places being available”.

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The STF statement also said: “It is unclear if the delay is due to bureaucratic process or if the Scottish Government is seeking to cut the budget for Modern Apprenticeships.”

The results of this apparent inaction were stark: thousands of young people “left in limbo”; hundreds of employers who “had to put their recruitment plans on hold”; and training providers “facing cash flow issues, with some facing the prospect of laying off staff.”

And the STF would certainly know all about that. The body represents more than 140 organisations “operating in the field of work-based training in Scotland”, and states that most of its members “are involved in the delivery of government funded training including Modern Apprenticeships and employability programmes in Scotland.”

But then, a twist – the Scottish Government response threw the story into doubt. Here it is in full:

“The Scottish Government has agreed the SDS budget and SDS have been asked to contract for Modern Apprenticeship starts in 2024/25 at a similar level to 2023/24, despite the incredibly challenging financial circumstances facing government. There are also 38,000 Modern Apprentices in training at this point in time, who will continue to be supported through their training.”

And that, you might think, would be that. No story here.

But wait a minute. Look carefully at that government statement. Does the wording seem a bit… careful to you?

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We certainly thought so. When did the government agree the SDS budget, and when did it ask SDS to start running Modern Apprenticeships for 2024/25? If this has all been sorted out weeks ago could we perhaps have expected a stronger, and clearer, statement from the government? What if the government’s position is true today, but only because they reacted to the STF going public?

And as for apprenticeship levels being “similar” to last year, the question is obvious: how similar? If they were the same as previous years then you could put your house on the government explicitly saying so, which means there has probably been some sort of cut. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know how significant that has been?

The Herald:
Well, we decided to ask the questions and have therefore been able to confirm that contracting for Modern Apprenticeships in 2024/25 only began after the STF press release on the 1st of April.

In a statement, SDS said: “Following confirmation from the Scottish Government, SDS is progressing Modern Apprenticeship contract awards for 2024/25 new starts and in-training in line with procurement processes.”

When asked whether it had started ‘progressing’ contracts only after the STF went public with their concerns, they simply said: “Yes.”

That STF felt the need to release a provocative press release is concerning enough, but the fact that it appears to have been proven right makes it even worse.

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It looks very much as though thousands of apprentices were indeed going to be ‘left in limbo’ until a very public fuss was made, at which time someone from the Scottish Government decided to take action. It also feels very similar to what happened with Developing the Young Workforce co-ordinators in Glasgow.

The end result of all of this is that the government has indeed confirmed that it will fund modern apprenticeships, but only after a public outcry. The Herald understands that there is funding for 'up to' 25,500 Modern Apprentices, but this is alongside a multi-million pound budget cut at Skills Development Scotland.

And it all adds to the questions that are already being asked about the basic competence of this latest iteration of the SNP Scottish Government.