There is no doubt that the government’s introduction of Raising the Participation Age (RPA) to age 18 will present a significant business development opportunity to work based learning providers.

For those unfamiliar with the DfE proposals, the RPA is being introduced in two phases: for 16-17 year olds in August 2013 and for 17-18 year olds in August 2015.

A young person in those age groups will be expected to be in some form of education, e.g. at a sixth form or FE college, or in employment where training is being provided.

The DfE recently conducted a consultation on the accompanying regulations which included an attempt to define what a qualifying job and the education or training element would be to classify a young person as not being NEET.

The department is seeking to come up with definitions that differentiate between a qualifying job, i.e. the young person is not NEET, and an internship or a holiday job.

This is why 20 hours per week over 8 weeks was considered the minimum starting point for the definition in the consultation.

Young people in work will still be expected to participate in some form of learning with an employer/provider for a minimum of 280 hours a year.

Where a young person is employed for more than 20 hours a week, there will be a statutory duty on the employer to take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure that the person is in education or training for this minimum period – hence the business development opportunity for work based learning providers.
We are then into a debate on what constitutes proper learning or training and the DfE is working towards a definition around what is called ‘directed learning’.

If a young person is following an accredited qualification then the guided learning hours (GLH) involved in studying will probably act as a proxy for this.

If work based learning opportunities aren’t available to them, young people may just prefer to stay NEET”

If what they are doing is not accredited study, then they have to show that the learning is somehow directed – for example, they could not sit at home and just read Wikipedia and declare that they are studying.

This sounds like a facetious example, but it isn’t because there are all sorts of thorny issues surrounding home education which have not been resolved yet.

Online/distance learning is also a tricky issue but generally if it is part of a directed programme – that is to say, that the learning is being directed by a tutor of some description (even if they are online) – then in principle it is likely to count towards RPA requirements. But the devil may of course lie in the detail.

Role of the local authorities

Local authorities will be key players for the RPA.

They already have a statutory duty to provide the September Guarantee for a learning place for a young person who wants one and the DfE sees them as having lead responsibility for the RPA at a time when the LAs are having their belts tightened like everyone else.

Equally important is the fact that with the immediate reversal of Labour’s devolution of the 16-18 remit in 2010 after the coalition government came into office, the powers of councils to influence the planning of local FE and skills provision have been limited.

This means that local authorities may not be able to fully and properly address situations where the demand from young people for apprenticeships and other work based learning exceeds supply.

To minimise the number becoming NEET, some of these young people may be inappropriately encouraged to stay on a sixth form or they may be ‘guided’ to over-supplied or completely unrelated courses in the local colleges which may not meet the young people’s or the local economy’s needs and which almost certainly do not satisfy the young people’s own aspirations.

This is one of the reasons why AELP successfully lobbied for the latest Education Act to require that secondary schools in England must provide independent and impartial careers advice from this autumn.

But if the DfE is saying that the buck stops with local authorities on the RPA, then the ‘easy’ answer to meet the statutory duty will be to fill places in sixth forms and colleges whether it’s in the young person’s interest or not.

And if work based learning opportunities aren’t available to them, young people may just prefer to stay NEET.

There is a growing recognition that the funding agencies need to listen more and consult with the local authorities over strategic planning of provision and this may result in changes favourable to work based learning provision because of the demands of young people themselves.

There is also growing pressure for the Education Funding Agency (EFA) to free up market access for new youth provision beyond the rather sluggish and opaque mechanisms that are currently in place.

AELP continues to discuss these issues with the government and the LGA. But in the meantime, the challenge for work based learning providers is to work with local employers to create more work with training opportunities for young people under 19 and the challenge for the EFA is to ensure that this can be speedily and properly funded.

Paul Warner is director of employment and skills for the AELP