From education to employment

Evaluating recent policy changes for the early years and care sectors in light of acute skills challenges

Paul Ferguson, Operations Director at Lifetime Training

The article discusses recent UK apprenticeship funding changes and their impact on vital industries like early years and adult social care. While welcomed, the changes fall short. Advocating for more robust policies, Lifetime’s Paul Ferguson calls for streamlined processes and targeted funding to support apprenticeship growth in these sectors.

As the dust settles on last month’s announcement on apprenticeship funding and support for small businesses, now is the time to reflect on where these changes leave the businesses and learners the policies are intended to support in the UK’s most in-need industries, particularly as we approach a likely Autumn election.

Our position at Lifetime mirrors much of what has already been argued by others in the sector – that while the changes are welcomed, the additional £60 million funding, removal of the cap non non-levy co-investment and full funding of SME apprentices up to the age of 21 are insufficient to bring about the changes needed. This need becomes even more apparent when looking at the specific challenges faced by sectors such as early years and adult social care. These sectors are facing some of the most acute staffing challenges, and must be supported by bolder policies to bring apprentices on board to address them.

Early years skills funding must match growing demand

With the extension to funded childcare places coming in from early April, apprenticeships provide a viable way for early years settings to embrace this legislation at a time when 100,000 new staff could be needed from 2024 – 2025 to maintain existing provision and meet the needs of the changes to nursery entitlement.

Having created additional demand through this welcome policy change, Government funding must change to support supply. The government introduced additional funding for the Early Years Educator Level 3 to align with the policy change, but Level 2 funding should also be reviewed in order to boost staff numbers.

Level 2 apprenticeships are key to providing opportunities for those entering the sector for the first time, allowing them to work in an early years setting under supervision and at a more junior level.

Fair wages are also crucial to retention, with research from the Early Education and Childcare Coalition showing that low pay and progression are key concerns for those in the sector. Apprenticeships are a key way to support progression pathways, but pay must reflect the importance of the work of early years’ employees.

Adult social care also facing acute pressures

Apprenticeship starts in adult social care for 22/23 was 14% below that seen in 21/22, compared to an average decrease of 3% across all starts. This paints an unfortunate picture for those providing this much needed care, as according to a Care Quality Commission survey in October 2023, over 50% of adult social care providers are facing recruitment challenges, and 31% are struggling to retain staff.

It is too soon to say precisely what impact the overall changes to levy rules will have for this sector; social care is less reliant on levy funds than other sectors, but apprentices tend to be older than in other areas, meaning SME care providers are less likely to benefit from the changes to funding for under 21s.

The structural issues which are preventing more tangible progress are the same as for early years, with the requirement for 20% of time spent training off-the-job a particularly acute issue for care, as well as the current requirements for functional skills in a profession where many potential employees do not have English as a first language.

Early years and adult social care are not the only areas that require outside-the-box thinking

Narrowing in on two sectors with the most challenging set of circumstances will inevitably expose the extent of the need for reform. But not all the changes needed require substantial policy change or levy reform, which is unlikely in the coming months. SME and levy-paying partners alike warn that bureaucracy and the challenges around fund transfers are barriers to considering apprenticeships. The current funding mechanism is complex and poses a significant barrier for SMEs, exacerbating their challenges.

Streamlining processes would make a real difference. For example, ensuring SMEs can access suitable training for effective apprenticeship roll out and that there is additional funding for Functional Skills courses. Extending the deadline for employers to spend their levy fund and allowing the funding to be spent on pre-employment training is also key.

As the election approaches, parties needn’t look far for the practical and more ambitious policy solutions to early years and adult social care skills and talent challenges, at a time when the need for reform is increasingly apparent to voters. The solutions are being advocated for across the board in the FE sector, and are here for the taking.

Paul Ferguson, Operations Director at Lifetime Training

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