From education to employment

Last week’s funding rules announcement shows collaboration is starting to pay off

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

Over the last year, AELP has made it a strategic priority to work much more closely with the Department of Education (DfE) to make it easier for providers and employers to access the apprenticeship system. The publication of the draft apprenticeship funding rules for 2023-2024 last week – two months earlier than last year – shows that collaboration is starting to bear fruit.

Why simplification is so vital

Bureaucracy is still a huge barrier for employers – particularly SMEs – looking to access the apprenticeship system. Unnecessary burdens within funding rules places a huge weight on employers, which ultimately has an impact on take up. We know that providers are having to employ extra staff just to administer the system to support employers. As a result, simplifying the apprenticeship system has become a big priority for AELP in recent years.

Much work has taken place on this front over the last twelve months, including ensuring AELP members have the opportunity to raise issues directly with officials – such as at our simplification conference in Birmingham last December held jointly with the DfE. Now, following that work it’s becoming clear that progress is being made -not least with the release last week of the draft apprenticeship funding rules.

I’d like to thank John Myers, Head of Apprenticeship Funding at the DfE, and his team for their hard work in ensuring the earlier publication of the rules this year. That was a commitment John made at our joint conference last December and Minister, Robert Halfon MP, was also very keen to ensure the DfE delivered on this promise and I’m pleased this was delivered. Having earlier sight of the rules is so important for providers and employers alike if they’re to both understand the changes, and have time to ensure systems are updated for the funding year ahead. AELP members consistently tell us that releasing the rules in July each year is far too late to implement all of the requirements needed to be compliant when funding rules go live on 1 August.

As well as seeing the draft version of the apprenticeship funding rules came out in March this year – two months earlier than in previous years, it was also good to see a 30% reduction in word count, stripping out unnecessary duplication. Earlier publication and an easier to follow set of rules were recurring themes at our simplification conference, so these are two really positive steps forward that providers will appreciate.

What changes are being made to the rules?

Turning to the rulebooks itself, there’s a very different look and feel for the academic year 23/24. This year especially it is important to read the rulebook in full – not just the summary of changes – as the whole document is now an amalgamation of provider, employer-provider and employer rules into a single document. This is important as it brings together the rules and responsibilities of the different parties in a single place. In addition, the evidence requirements is now found within each area, as opposed to having the evidence requirements lumped together at the end of the pack to unpick.

So what are the headline rule changes to be aware of?

  • A key change for the new academic year is that some active learning (off-the-job training or English/maths training) must take place in every calendar month of the practical period, as opposed to every 28 days. On paper this may appear a subtle change, but it will have a big impact as it stretches the period between active learning to a 7-8 week maximum period and could see the total number of interactions required reduced over a full year from at least 13 to 12. Greater flexibility around active learning has been a key theme to reduce time consuming and costly replanning activity, allowing flexibility for apprentices in sectors such as hospitality and retail navigate busy periods such as Christmas and allow providers to concentrate on delivering high quality training and less paper chasing.
  • Providers must use a break in learning (BIL) where there is no plan for any active learning (either off-the-job training or English/maths training) to occur every calendar month of the practical period. With the move from 28 days to calendar months there this will hopefully lead to fewer, less arbitrary BILs – which can only be a good thing, again less of a paperchase and apprentices placed on a BIL are at greater risk of not completing and being withdrawn.
  • From next year progress reviews will now take place at least four times each year. The expectation is that they must be carried out at least every 12 weeks – but there will now be flexibility where this is an evidenced delivery reason (such as module length) to adopt an alternative frequency. Alternative frequencies must be agreed upon with the employer, but this change allows progress reviews to fit around training as opposed to be fixed at set points, which in some cases are counterproductive and arbitrary.
  • The training plan must be agreed upon before any training is delivered (this agreement can be virtual), with a fully signed version of the plan being in place by the end of the 42-day ‘qualifying day’ period. In essence, this allows for a more extended period to get the training plan signed-off by the employer, reduces the pressure on onboarding, and the flexibility around the virtual aspect is positive here too as we are keen that providers and employers are encouraged to be able to use different methods and tools.
  • If the employer is unable to attend the Initial Assessment discussion, the provider must give them the opportunity to contribute. They must also send them the relevant information after the meeting, for review and signature. This is added to support occasions where the employer is not able to attend a meeting with the provider and individual, but noting this shouldn’t be the default position.
  • Positively, we will also see an increasing in the apprenticeships care leavers’ bursary to £3,000, for new starts from August 2023. This aligns with the previously announced NAW policy, and the payment will be made in three instalments.

A number of these announcements are ones that we’ve been lobbying hard for but any feedback on these rules can be made by email to the DfE at [email protected] by Friday 28 April 2023.

Ultimately, the goal of simplification is to improve take up of apprenticeships. The funding rules are, of course, only one factor in determining how many people take on an apprenticeship but it is an important one nonetheless, and we’ll continue to work closely with the DfE to simplify these rules as much as possible.

Progress today has been a positive step forward, nevertheless it is important to highlight that this isn’t the end of this project. There are still a number of simplifications we will be working with the DfE on to implement in future editions of the rules too.

By Simon Ashworth, Director of Policy, AELP

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