Off-the-job training rules are inflexible and hard to enforce. They need urgent reform, argues Sue Pittock

Who first thought up the 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement, which is now an ESFA funding rule? It seems that policymakers felt that something like the old-style day release from a local college would still be relevant in 2017 to apprenticeships across all sectors. 

Don’t get me wrong. At Remit Training, we love the change in focus from assessment to high-quality teaching and learning that enriches an apprentice’s experience. It allows us to build some great programmes, and it’s a positive change from the previous, restrictive focus on assessment. But just because a standard stipulates 20 per cent off-the-job training, it isn’t necessarily going to improve quality. To make a difference, the emphasis must be on a programme’s overall quality, not an arbitrary percentage. 

We would like the government to relax the policy to allow the learners to do some of this learning as homework. No other education programme omits homework as a set criteria, right from school through to further and higher education. Why should apprenticeships be any different?

With ministers remaining steadfast in their belief in social mobility, i.e. if a young person from a disadvantaged background wants to put some extra hours in to get on or to improve their English and maths, surely the manner shouldn’t be prescribed? Instead, this newly-published official guidance insists that any out-of-hours learning must be formally recognised, usually as time off in lieu, while English and maths are both excluded from the off-the-job definition. 

Some apprenticeships that are vital for the economy, such as health and social care, need additional funding to accommodate the 20 per cent requirement. It is no cheaper to deliver training for a programme that attracts £3,000 of maximum funding than to deliver some of the IT programmes that attract £15,000 of funding. If the government was serious about parity across all apprenticeships, this element would be funded as a fixed cost per annum. 

We need to discuss the needs of the employer and combine this with a mix of blended learning; in most cases we don’t need to do a full day of off-the-job training in a classroom. An employer may want a face-to-face visit, or online learning, webinars, time for writing assignments, or even to build part of their programme around mentoring. 

Once we have mapped out all the months with the detail of the programme, we can place this document in the learner’s base file to show how we plan to deliver 20 per cent off-the-job training. The employer and learner can then see what they are committing to and agree this as part of the contracting process. This is the evidence we all need to have ready for any ESFA audit. 

Ofsted was clear again at the AELP conference that it is not prepared to audit hours, but will dig into teaching and learning if it feels that learners are receiving a poor experience. It doesn’t care whether these hours are paid or unpaid – considering this irrelevant to the quality of the learning. 

Anne Milton, the new skills minister, took just two weeks to fix some elements of the apprenticeship reforms that had gone wrong. Now she needs to take a hard look at the 20 per cent requirement. I wonder which Whitehall room this concept was invented in and whether anyone involved in on-the-ground delivery was part of the discussion? 

Either the ‘off-the-job’ label should embrace all training and learning, no matter what time of day, or it needs a new name. In the meantime, the main message is that off-the-job training in itself is not going to go away. Embrace it, have some fun and deliver some fantastic apprenticeships.

 

Sue Pittock is the CEO of Remit Training

 

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Guide to off-the-job training rule

As of May 1 anyone that starts an apprenticeship – whether on a framework or new standard – must now receive at least 20 per cent off-the-job training, according to new Education and Skills Funding Agency rules.

The requirement, which was first announced back in 2013, is one of the government’s core principles for protecting the quality of the apprenticeship programme.

‘Off the job’ is defined as: “Learning which is undertaken outside of the normal day-to-day working environment and leads towards the achievement of an apprenticeship. 

“This can include training that is delivered at the apprentice’s normal place of work but must not be delivered as part of their normal working duties.”

Guidance published by the Department for Education in June stipulated that “each apprentice should have a commitment statement that, among other information, outlines the programme of training that the apprentice should receive” and which “should set out how the provider intends to fulfil the 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement”.

And the provider must submit evidence that the training is being delivered in order to draw down apprenticeship funding. 

But actually working out what counts as ‘off the job’ – or even how much there should be – is far from simple. 

The percentage is calculated on the basis of an apprentice’s contracted hours of work, spread over the duration of their apprenticeship.

For example, if someone is on a two-year apprenticeship and has an employment contract for seven hours a day, five days a week, for 46 weeks that adds up to a total of 3,220 contracted hours over the two years. 

So the minimum amount of time they should spend in off-the-job training would be 644 hours, or the equivalent of one day per working week. 

But this does not have to be undertaken at set times: “It is up to the employer and provider to decide at what point during the apprenticeship the training is best delivered.”

Nor does it have to be delivered in a set format.

For training to count towards the 20 per cent rule, it must teach “new knowledge, skills and/or behaviours that will contribute to the successful achievement of an apprenticeship”. 

It must also be “directly relevant to the apprenticeship” and could include teaching of theory, practical training or time spent completing assignments. 

Training can be carried out at the apprentice’s normal workstation, as long as they are learning new skills – “it is the activity, rather than the location” that counts. 

And some – but not all – off-the-job training can be delivered via distance learning. 

No training the apprentice does in their own time counts towards the 20 per cent rule – except in exceptional circumstances, and only if the apprentice is given time off in lieu – nor do performance reviews.

And any English and maths training doesn’t count either – if it’s needed, it must be on top of the 20 per cent.