There was a degree of fanfare when the ESFA announced its revised APAR for apprenticeship providers earlier this year but has anything really changed.
In April 2020 the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP), as it was formerly known, closed its doors to new applicants. The recently announced reboot of the register, rechristened as the Apprenticeship Providers & Assessment Register (APAR) – merging in the former register for End Point Assessment Organisations (EPAOs), gave hope that it would reopen once again. Three and a half years on, and despite this latest resurrection, the doorway for mainstream applicants to join seemingly remains firmly closed. So, what exactly is going on?
The Current State of APAR
Well, firstly, let’s look at APAR as it stands today. As of November 2023, there are 1,840 providers on APAR. 271 of these are EPAOs, leaving 1,569 providers and colleges. This represents a net drop of almost 600 providers from the register since May 2021 (albeit many of these fell off through the last refresh executed between 2021 and 2022). A further 15 main providers on the current APAR have their status listed as “not currently starting new apprentices”. So, the register is getting smaller.
On the other hand, the ESFA would rightly point out that APAR is not actually closed to new provider applications, or at least not completely. Around 70 providers have been added to APAR during 2023 so far through two open application channels. The first is where an employer nominates a prospective provider to fill a gap in provision which already registered providers can’t fulfil (accounting for around 80% of all new registrations in 2023). The second is where an employer can apply to deliver solely to its own staff (an employer provider). Both routes are demand led, which is arguably a good thing.
You might think that 1,569 providers on APAR is enough. There were 349,200 apprentice starts in England in 2021/22, equating to an average of 222 per current provider. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? More than enough for the ESFA and Ofsted to keep on top of. Critically, however, the continued closure of the register to general applicants has resulted in an ever-lengthening shadow over the contestability of the apprenticeship marketplace.
If, for example, you want to start a business to deliver apprenticeships for Adult Care Workers or Early Years Practitioners, you very likely wouldn’t be able to join APAR because there are plenty of other providers already offering these standards. They may not offer better quality than you, or offer better value for money, but rather they got on the register before you, so tough luck! Carley Consult knows of at least 40 providers that would love to join APAR, and offer quality apprenticeships to learners, but who continue to be frozen out of the market.
Challenges and Prospects for APAR
Furthermore, the net drop in APAR registered providers crudely mirrors the downward national trend in apprenticeship starts. Whilst numbers have rallied slightly, there were around 150,000 fewer apprenticeship starts in 2021/22 compared to 2016/17. Surely the market needs more capacity and competition, not less. In any other publicly funded market, you would expect to see provision re-tendered after 3 years (as, indeed, we routinely see with AEB), but if you’re on APAR you can bank those cheques for apprenticeship fees for life, or so it would seem.
Sooner or later, this will surely become an uncomfortable, if not untenable, position for the ESFA. If you are going to run with a register of suppliers for taxpayer funded provision, then sooner or later you must open it up to fresh competition. Sadly though, the outlook is that it will probably be later.
By Jim Carley, Managing Director, Carley Consult Ltd
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