From education to employment

Five takeaways from AELP National Conference 2023

Simon Ashworth, Director of Policy, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) 

Following another AELP National Conference, AELP’s Director of Policy, Simon Ashworth, takes us through his five takeaways from the event – including thoughts around apprenticeship levy reform, the exceptional funding band review and the need for a united skills sector as we approach the next General Election.

This year’s AELP National Conference was another massive success with an agenda packed full of engaging speakers and panellists – as well as interactive workshops across a wide range of topics. With the dust settling on another successful AELP National Conference, I want to reflect on what we learnt across the two days.

Caution is required over Apprenticeship Levy reform

AELP National Conference kicked off with our chair Nichola Hay MBE announcing a shift in AELP’s Apprenticeship Levy position during her keynote speech on Monday morning.

After listening to feedback from members, AELP is calling for the cautious introduction of flexibility in the levy, while ensuring apprenticeships remain its primary focus. This flexibility would allow a small portion of the programme budget to be used on quality non-apprenticeship skills provision. However, Nicki was clear that flexibility should only be introduced if it is coupled with a ring-fenced SME apprenticeship budget. This would protect the 98% of employers that do not pay the apprenticeship levy.

Nicki also highlighted the growing divide between the level of money paid through the levy by employers and the Department for Education’s (DfE) apprenticeship programme budget. Ultimately employers are being short-changed with funding that should be used to support wider and deeper funding band increases, and targeted employer incentives aimed at non-levy paying employers and young people specifically.

We finally have the outcome of the exceptional funding bands review

We were pleased to hear the Skills Minister, Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, announce the long-awaited conclusion to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education’s (IfATE) exceptional funding bands review on the Monday morning of conference. The review, announced in November 2022, at AELP Autumn Conference, was a long time coming, and much needed by the sector. Funding band uplifts were announced for 10 apprenticeship standards, with larger than expected uplifts for Adult Care Worker and Heavy Vehicle Service and Maintenance Technician standards. The Minster announced that funding for the level 2 Adult Care Worker and level 3 Lead Adult Care Worker apprenticeship will both increase from £3,000 to £4,000, while funding for the Heavy Vehicle Service and Maintenance apprenticeship will also increase by a third from £15,000 to £20,000.

Although the outcome of this review was welcomed by many at conference, there clearly remains frustration in the sector at how long the review took. It has taken far, far too long to get an outcome to a process where the aim was to see a speedy decision taken. It should also be noted that, despite this step forward, we still have nearly 50% of the original standards in the exceptional review deferred by employers to a wider and more drawn-out review. We need a much more responsive approach to reviewing standards and a funding model that properly factors in all eligible delivery costs.

There are changes to come at Ofsted, but hopefully not to the inspection framework

As we reach the end of HM Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman’s term of office, Ofsted are in listening mode. It was interesting to hear Amanda give an honest overview of her time in post, detailing some of the challenges faced by Ofsted, especially in recent years as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given Amanda will be retiring later this year, I’d like to thank her for all her work in engaging closely with AELP and our members. What I will say is that I hope her successor doesn’t do what so many Chief Inspectors have done, and seek to make wholesale changes to the inspection framework. The current education inspection framework has been seismically better for further education providers than its predecessor.

We also heard from Paul Joyce HMI, Ofsted’s Deputy Director for Further Education & Skills, who announced that following feedback Ofsted will increase the notice period of inspections for ‘large and complex’ providers from two days to six days. This is in recognition of the logistical difficulty large and complex providers can face with staffing and organisation when confronted with a prompt inspection. Paul clarified that providers with £10 million plus in government funding and operating non three different regions will be defined as ‘large and complex’. 

The Labour Party has committed to protecting apprenticeship funding for non-levy payers

On day two at conference, we heard from the Shadow Skills Minister, Toby Perkins MP, who gave conference more information about Labour’s plans for a Growth and Skills Levy. Under Labour’s plans levy paying employers will be able to spend 50% of their contribution on non-apprenticeship courses, with at least 50% needing to be spent on apprenticeships. Our big concern is that this level of flexibility in the levy would see non-levy payers squeezed out of the apprenticeship budget. Hence Nicki’s calls for any reforms to proceed with caution.

What we did hear from Toby Perkins is a clear commitment that “there will be no reduction in the amount of funding available to fund non-levy payers’ apprenticeship funding”. This spending commitment will be welcomed by the sector and provide security for non-levy payers wanting to continue taking on apprentices. We will be interested how they will manage to stick to this at a time when the underspend in the apprenticeship budget is disappearing quickly.

We need a united front on skills as we approach the next General Election

One of the themes that came through from a number of speakers was the need and the desire for the sector to work together as one powerful voice to government. This is even more important with a General Election on the horizon. Political parties are now developing their manifesto commitments and we need to ensure skills are a priority in the final documents.

We all know that the sector faces a number of common challenges where we can work together. The obvious priority should be to resolve the insufficient and diffused divestment across the sector as well as the lack of joined-up thinking across departments; insufficient understanding and prioritisation of technical education and skills; insufficient strategic engagement with workforce planning and investment in skills from employers; and, let’s face it, an insufficient coverage of skills in the national media.

Once again, AELP National Conference has resulted in a number of interesting announcements from politicians and officials, as well as an opportunity for attendees to network with their peers. If you didn’t make it along this time, hopefully we’ll see you at one of our future events soon.

simon ashworth
By Simon Ashworth, Director of Policy, AELP

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