From education to employment

Rethinking “Early Leavers” as “Partial Achievers”

Kerry Boffey

Kerry advocates adopting a new lens for assessing achievement. Rather than tarnishing all early leavers with the same brush, we should recognise and report on the accomplishments of partial achievers.

In the world of further education, the term “early leavers” often carries a negative connotation. It implies that those who don’t complete their programmes have somehow failed or given up. From an Ofsted perspective, if the data shows high numbers of early leavers on any programme with no evidence to explain reasons for leaving, the pendulum swings towards a likely negative outcome of an inspection.

But for apprenticeships, what if we reframe this perspective and consider the learners as “partial achievers” instead? By shifting our focus to what knowledge, skills and behaviours apprentices attained before leaving, we can unveil a more holistic understanding of their journeys and the apprenticeship system itself.

A marathon runner may not complete the full 26-mile course to receive the medal but still deserves applause for the miles they did achieve and the timings accomplished at each checkpoint. In the case of apprentices, one significant group that often falls into the “early leaver” category are those who leave a programme to embark on new or different career paths. Instead of viewing this as a negative outcome, could it be that they received excellent career advice that led them to make informed decisions that were right for the individual? Perhaps, in these cases, leaving an apprenticeship was the best choice to fulfil their evolving aspirations and goals. Lives and circumstances change, and so do priorities.

Nationally, apprenticeship achievement rates leave room for improvement. However, when we take a closer look, it becomes evident that the blame doesn’t always fall on the providers. This shift in perspective prompts us to question whether it’s time to rethink the entire apprenticeship model or to adopt a new lens through which we assess achievement. Rather than tarnishing all early leavers with the same brush, it’s essential to recognise and report on the accomplishments of partial achievers.

Impact of functional skills pass requirement

The requirement for apprentices to achieve at least level 1 for functional skills has a major impact on achievement rates. For the apprentices themselves, it can be career-limiting. As others have pointed out, achieving a qualification in functional skills is not an exit requirement for any other programme so why is it for apprenticeships?

The requirement can lead to providers experiencing anything between 20 to 80 per cent of unfunded provision and therefore FIN works with providers to maximise FSQ passes. For example ‘outstanding’ Remit Training talked to fellow FIN members about how they supported the effective introduction of virtual tutors to add to the face-to-face tuition. Learners are expected to pass mock assessments before the actual test and the provider ensures that robust tracking of progress is maintained. For employers who have set entry requirements, there are robust initial assessments or diagnostics in place. The combination of these measures has made a real difference for Remit.  

Ofsted’s independent review of careers guidance in specialist settings has just found that many of the apprenticeships and other courses available require formal qualifications in maths and English which can present a significant barrier for some SEND learners. Ofsted argues that It may be more appropriate for some learners to continue to study maths and English while undertaking further study, and this is often what happens.

Early leavers on other skills and employability programmes

For shorter skills courses or employability programmes. It’s also time to take a fresh look at early leavers.

To move in this direction, the regulators and the inspectorate must start asking different questions. While on the programme, what did learners achieve? How did their behaviours and attitudes improve? What knowledge, skills or confidence did they gain? Did the career advice help them progress, even if it meant leaving the course behind? And most importantly, how will this partial achievement benefit not only the individual but also their community and industry in the long run? Again, what might have been a priority for a learner at the beginning of a programme may no longer hold the same importance later on.

Differentiated learning applies to programme duration and external influences – not just content, pedagogy and learning styles. A better understanding of our learners and aligning these changing priorities with partial achievements allow for a more nuanced and accurate assessment of progression.

By taking a more positive view of partial achievers, we are valuing the learning experience both delivered and received and enhancing the overall value of the learner’s experience. We should acknowledge that the knowledge,  skills and insights gained during any further education programme, even if not completed, contribute positively to individuals’ personal and professional growth.

Scrutinising the data

In my role, of providing oversight and governance to training providers, I look at the data for early leavers (non-achievers). I like to ask the question ‘So, what did they attend, attain or achieve’? It’s only by taking a closer look at the data and understanding each scenario that we can shake off the negative stigma and celebrate all achievements, full and partial. By doing this, we celebrate the diversity and richness of learning experiences that further education can offer, and we support individuals in achieving their unique goals and aspirations by relabelling as partial achievers.

If a Labour government were to set up its proposed Skills England oversight body, this is the type of ‘different approach’ policy that the body should consider rather than just leaving it to officials and for ministers to sign off.

By Kerry Boffey, Fellowship of Inspection Nominees

FE News on the go

Welcome to FE News on the Go, the podcast that delivers exclusive articles from the world of further education straight to your ears.

We are experimenting with Artificial Intelligence to make our exclusive articles even more accessible while also automating the process for our team of project managers.

In each episode, our thought leaders and sector influencers will delve into the most pressing issues facing the FE.

Related Articles