National Audit Office reviewing apprenticeship reforms progress

A follow-up review of apprenticeships has been launched by the National Audit Office, which will focus on whether the reform programme is delivering value for money.

The NAO is requesting submissions, with a key theme being whether the Department for Education is ensuring that the system is not being abused by stakeholders.

This comes after its 2016 report warned the reform programme risked repeating fraud that plagued failed Individual Learning Accounts without more robust risk planning.

“We last reported to parliament on the apprenticeships programme in September 2016,” a spokesperson said.

“Since then there have been a number of developments which make revisiting this topic timely, including a 0.5 per cent levy that has been introduced on the payroll of large employers to fund apprenticeships”.

The apprenticeships levy was launched for employers with a paybill of over £3 million in April last year. They have two years to spend their levy pot on apprenticeships training, which the government hoped would boost apprenticeship starts.

This has not so far happened and the NAO is expected to look into why starts are infact now “significantly lower”.

Most recent figures for March for example showed that apprenticeship starts were down 52 per cent compared with the same period in 2017.

The study will also look closely at the Institute for Apprenticeships, which is supposed to act as the policing body for the reforms programme.

Key among IfA responsibilities is signing off employer-designed apprenticeship ‘standards’ that are increasingly replacing old ‘frameworks’, and the NAO plans to check out progress with this.

Its damning 2016 report warned that the DfE has still had no contingency plan in case the levy and funding reforms did not work out as planned.

The failure of the Individual Learning Accounts scheme – which was scrapped in 2001 after abuse by unscrupulous providers led to a reported £67 million fraud – was blamed on poor planning and risk management by the government.

But the NAO raised concern that lessons had not been learned — as it warned the DfE had not done enough to identify how providers, employers and assessment bodies might react to the apprenticeship reforms, raising the risk of “market abuse”.

Mark Dawe

Launch of the new study comes after Association of Employment and Learning Providers boss Mark Dawe told members this week that he’d had “an excellent meeting with the NAO with a number of our providers and end point assessment organisation members, talking about the apprenticeship policy a year on”. 

“It made me proud to represent the sector the way everyone spoke, the balance of view and the clarity in the way everyone articulated the big issues”. 

But he warned “it was a great reminder for me of the looming car crash in terms of end point assessment”. 

“This is nothing to do with the providers and the EPA organisations who are trying their hardest to make this work – examples of poor assessment design in the approved standard, poor funding, absent quality controls, limited workforce capacity, lack of awareness – the list went on,” he added.

FE Week has been reporting on concern over the lack of approved organisations in place to deliver apprenticeship end point assessments since 2016.

Our special investigation in April uncovered an example of how would-be dental practice managers began their apprenticeship with Barnet and Southgate College in November 2015.

They finished their training and should have completed last May, but were unable to do so almost a year later as nobody was available to test them because the assessment plan was unworkable.

The NAO has invited those interested in providing evidence for its latest study, scheduled to report early next year, to email enquiries@nao.gsi.gov.uk.