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Apprenticeships hang in the balance

Martin Taft, Managing Director of Springboard Training
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I was one of the lockdown entrepreneurs. I started my business – a skills and corporate training provider – with a mission to give the best possible service to my clients. 

For me, the inspiration behind setting up Springboard Training was borne out of wanting to do better. Wanting to do better by the clients who pay good money for work-based learning experiences for their staff and in particular, a strong ambition to deliver high quality apprenticeships to a generation of young school leavers, and older learners hoping to progress their careers.

But we can’t. And it’s the government’s fault. 

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has affected businesses and the wider economy hugely. Places of learning, too. A lot of this can’t be helped, and we’re all trying to get by as best we can.

But my staff and I take umbrage with the actions – or lack of action – of the Education and Skills Funding Agency in relation to apprenticeships. 

In the middle of the biggest economic crisis in living memory, the ESFA made the baffling decision to close its Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP) to new applicants wishing to offer apprenticeship programmes.

This, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, has had the effect of stifling new jobs, training schemes, and also risks the loss of talent within the industry. It is a decision that has absolutely stalled the training industry, as well as the careers of many school leavers, those facing redundancy, and anyone looking to improve their skills at a time of national crisis.

For those of you not familiar with the intricacies of the ESFA’s processes and procedures, closing the RoATP means that since April, a bottleneck has been created, preventing new independent training providers just like us from offering real support at a critical time for jobs and the economy.

But why is that harmful to the further education sector?

The problem, which has been evident for too long now, is the monopoly of larger organisations in the further education sector. 

While not all of these companies are irresponsible with finances and turn a blind eye to fraudulent practices – the fact is that too many of them have been found to be. And because of this, it’s ordinary people who pay the price. 

Dodgy deals and bad budgets have real life consequences. Staff lose their jobs to redundancy. Students get poor placements that can wreck their careers.

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The ESFA has a moral duty towards small, high-quality training companies who can deliver tailored support within the local community. Companies like us who actually care and want our school leavers and young people to have real opportunities and choices about their futures.

They can’t have that if the ESFA simply refuses to open the doors to new providers who want to do right by them.

Recently, the ESFA’s own acting director of further education said that the body’s relationship with independent training providers simply isn’t close enough.

She’s right. And now is the time to listen to what businesses like mine have to say.

The Department for Education pointed out that there are cash incentives for employers who offer apprenticeships. That’s true – but there are no new providers who can take advantage of this scheme, which only serves to strengthen the hold large providers have in the industry.

Furthermore, the DfE and ESFA have no right to comment on the quality of provision if they have not assessed providers like us at Springboard Training. We dislike the implication that our service is somehow lacking, and we fail to understand how closing the register still provides stability. 

We’re very worried that not only is the ESFA preventing new learners from furthering their careers, it is fuelling the inevitable unemployment emergency when the government’s furlough scheme changes in October.

Providers like mine have a much greater understanding of the communities in which they operate – and in the solutions to help bridge the gap in jobs and training. And while the ESFA continues to be vague about when the RoATP will reopen, it’s learners who are suffering.

Using Covid-19 as an excuse just isn’t good enough. 

The ESFA must find a solution for small and niche providers, or we’ll see the effects for decades to come.

Martin Taft, Managing Director of Springboard Training

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