From education to employment

Apprenticeship Provider Accountability

Simon Ashworth is Director of Policy at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP).

Back in August this year, the ESFA published their new Apprenticeship Training Provider Accountability Framework. This important publication sets out the ESFA’s key principles and objectives of the new accountability framework, the range of interventions involved, along with the indicators used to assess provider quality. The framework is in addition to compliance monitoring activity with the apprenticeship funding rules, and the long-standing financial health assessment that established providers will know well. It was updated earlier this year to mitigate short-term declines as a result of the pandemic. Something AELP lobbied for, and were pleased to see the ESFA take a pragmatic view on.

This change represents a shift in government policy on accountability towards an approach which considers a wider range of measures. AELP is supportive of this move, despite some arguing that it could lead to scenarios where some indicators are positive and some negative, which could blur or mask underlying issues. However, the critical phase is yet to be defined. The ESFA say they will publish information on “applicable thresholds” imminently. Hopefully, this happens sooner than later as we are already a quarter of the way through the academic year, and providers need to know what the requirements are.

One of the key indicators will be achievement rates. These have historically been the primary measure used by the ESFA to manage provider performance, linked to minimum standards (and before that, minimum levels of performance). The framework states that moving forward, the ESFA will be comparing achievement rates between providers “delivering similar standards or in similar sectors”. Similarly, they will compare retention and withdrawal rates on the same basis.

This seems a sensible move. Simply having a generic threshold under the minimum standards methodology never felt 100% fair, when providers may be operating in vastly different sectors. Sectors have quite variable external factors impacting staff turnover. For example, achievement rates in hospitality or adult care settings are realistically never going to be as high as in finance or digital/IT settings.

But we cannot get away from the fact that the achievement rate methodology and the current approach to qualification achievement rates (QAR) do not properly fit with employer-led apprenticeship standards. Funding flows through employers- no longer following the learner- and this is the nettle that still needs grasping. Whatever measures sit within this range of measures, achievement rates will be the shining beacon that commentators will pluck out and compare against historical rates accrued from legacy frameworks.

One large provider recently shared analysis with AELP that showed that over 60% of their apprenticeships non-achieving leavers left for reasons simply outside of the provider’s direct sphere of control. Examples included EU nationals deciding to leave the UK as a result of Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic, apprentices who had been dismissed, and apprentices who had found alternative employment.

When AELP recently met with the new Secretary of State for Education, he asked for our views on portable apprenticeships. We explained that they are a good concept, and should widen participation. However, providers will need to be very careful. The ESFA defines a break in employment that lasts more than 30 days as withdrawal and a restart. If a learner on a portable apprenticeship does not get on to their next project before the 30 days are up, this could impact on the provider’s success rate. Some flexibility on this for portable apprenticeships would not go amiss.

The latest issue we see developing in the (still) chronically underfunded and undervalued adult care sector is apprentices making a personal decision not to be vaccinated. Therefore, the Care Quality Commission requirements mean that they can no longer work in a care setting. The apprentice has to be withdrawn from the apprenticeship programme and both the provider and the apprenticeship sector takes another slap on their achievement rates. In theory, under the new ESFA framework, this should mean providers working in the same sectors and facing the same issues will be benchmarked against each other. Intervention should always be proportional and transparent, which has not always been the case in the past.

However, one way you could sum this up is that there is simply not enough trust from the ESFA in the provider community. It would not be difficult to add another reason for non-completion on the ILR that providers could use where the situation is outside of their direct control, underpinned by clear evidence to justify each decision.

So, in summary, is the move to a range of provider accountability measures a good thing? Yes, in principle. But let’s get the thresholds right and shared in a timely way with providers, so they know what they are dealing with. Trust goes both ways. We should stop skirting around the issue and properly address the achievement rate debacle, for everyone involved.

Simon Ashworth is Director of Policy at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). AELP is a national membership body, representing around 800 organisations involved in the delivery of vocational learning and employability. Their members support thousands of businesses and millions of people across England by delivering the majority of apprenticeships, traineeships and programmes for the unemployed.

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