Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Partner Director, Kaplan UK

What does the decline in Apprenticeship success rates actually mean?

Preparing to speak at the Ofqual conference this week and reviewing with the recent release of Apprenticeship success rate data has prompted me to think about the way we measure Apprenticeship success. The recent publication of the 2015/16 data has caused a few headlines. With a change to the success rate calculation, (inc a tightening of the rules around ‘non completed’ apprenticeships), meaning that 1 in 3 Apprenticeships are now not being successfully completed.

How does this compare to other forms of education and what is it telling us?

Comparing apprenticeships to other forms of education

* GCSEs success rates also fell to 67% (A-C) in 2016 and further falls are expected as coursework is removed and greater emphasis put on end point exams.

* A level pass rates are c80% [A-C] as are other level 3 vocational qualifications

* Degree success rates are hard to find…but there is a figure of 81% published by HESA for young, full time students
   (NB 2014/15 results projected see chart 24).

So apprenticeships are the least successful of the major qualification programmes?

Superficially yes. Although the SFA methodology for Apprenticeship success rate measurement is particularly harsh as it includes all those who start. Whereas GCSE and A level results are based on the % who complete and take the exam – not those who start the course. And HEI / degree rates are based on ‘projections’ by HESA and don’t include mature students who may be more likely to be distracted.

GSCSE and A-level groups are pretty homogenised cohorts with learners on full time programmes; with their studies being their main occupation and focus. Whilst Apprentices are of every age, studying at every level and spend at least 80% of their time doing real jobs - as well as more often than not also having some form of caring responsibility.

Despite this the reality is that apprentices very rarely fail – they just don’t finish. Most either: give up, get distracted or change job. Of course this is also a criticism of the current system and in future many more may fail due to not passing their EPA.

Drivers of success

Beyond the differences in methodology there are some other fundamental differences; if you fail your GCSEs you parents will probably give you a hard time, if you fail your degree you have ‘wasted’ a lot of money….If you fail your apprenticeship your family and employer may care but if you are 30/40/50 and well established at your employer this impact may well be minor.

Indeed under the new funding methodologies (Levy & 90/10) employers will pay less for non-achievers than achievers and so are systemically incentivised to see non-completion as a cost saving.

And at an individual level, under the new standards, it is possible that those who achieve a Degree or other valuable qualification as part of their apprenticeship may well feel uninclined to then complete their apprenticeship and their End Point Assessment, particularly if it is onerous…

How can we safeguard apprenticeship success rates?

Of course most employers will want their apprentices to complete and who knows one day success rate data might be published at ‘employer level’ and thus affect the way that employers are viewed by prospective employees. And providers definitely want Apprentices to complete! as the ever increasing minimum level of performance draws closer to average success rates the danger of losing contracts with the SFA looms large for many. And of course the 20% completion payment is important and the difference between a programme being financially successful or unsuccessful.

So what can we do to encourage completion?

Pedagogy. Providing meaningful learning that is challenging, helps people to do their jobs better and which employees find beneficial and interesting means that we have eager apprentices and motivated learners.

Monitoring. Providers and employers need to closely monitor learner progress, and act quickly when slippage occurs. We also need to provide mentoring and pastoral support for learners to help them balance work and life and to stay the course - even when life gets complicated.

Money talks. Employers can (and do) use financial ‘carrots’ such as success payments for completing learners, and ‘sticks’ such as fines or ‘golden handcuffs’ for those who drop out without good reason. These incentives can work – but only with a high quality programme.

Whether we think the SFA success rate methodology is a fair or meaningful measure of the quality of teaching and learning, it is not likely to go away.

And all of us who are concerned with the reputation and progress of the apprenticeship programme overall, need to do all that we can to ensure that it is viewed as a successful one.

Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Partner Director, Kaplan UK

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