Apprenticeships found to be planned with less than the minimum 20 per cent off-the-job training will be “ineligible and all funding would be recovered”, FE Week can reveal.

The off-the-job training policy has prompted controversy and confusion since it was introduced in 2017.

In an attempt to provide some clarity, the Department for Education published guidance earlier this month that attempted to bust certain “myths” about the rule.

It didn’t, however, clarify what the sanctions are for noncompliance.

FE Week asked the DfE when it would take money back from providers that didn’t comply with it, and was told those who fail to plan sufficient hours would have all the funding clawed back, while others will be judged on a case-by-case basis.

“If a provider is not providing 20 per cent off-the-job training for learners, we would assess the situation and decide a course of action which could include taking back funding,” a spokesperson said.

He then clarified that it will ask non-compliant providers for apprentices’ commitment statements, for evidence of how much off-the-job training they planned to deliver.

Those that are found to have planned to deliver less than the minimum would have their funding recovered as the programme would be considered ineligible.

The spokesperson explained that: “If the commitment statement is not compliant then this makes the programme ineligible and all funding would be recovered.”

However, those that intended to deliver at least 20 per cent but only had evidence for less than the minimum would be given the opportunity to provide additional evidence.

Since the beginning of 2018/19 providers have had the option of completing a new data field in the individual learner record to show that they are complying with the rule.

It is not compulsory, and the DfE has yet to decide whether it will be in the future – in recognition of the fact that completing it is “burdensome” for some providers, the spokesperson said.

The 20 per cent off-the-job training rule is widely cited as the biggest barrier to apprentice recruitment, but others – including the skills minister, Anne Milton – have insisted it is a key element of a high-quality apprenticeship.

It requires all apprentices to spend the equivalent of one day a week on activities relating to their course but which are different from their normal working duties.

The DfE’s “mythbusters” guidance, published in early January, aimed to combat widespread confusion about what the rule entails.

Among the myths it addresses are the mistaken belief that the training can be done in an apprentice’s own time, and that it must be “delivered by a provider in a classroom, at an external location”.

However, it doesn’t provide any clarity over a recent policy change that affects how the 20 per cent is calculated.

Previously it was based on a 52-week year, including an apprentice’s annual leave – but as of August 1, 2018 this leave entitlement must be deducted before working out how many off-the-job hours training an apprentice requires.

It means that the calculation to determine off-the-job hours is different for apprentices who started before August 1, 2018, compared with those who started after.

An FE Week survey in March last year found that the sector considered the off-the-job training rule to be the single biggest barrier to apprenticeship recruitment.

It is considered to be particularly an issue for smaller companies who claim they can’t afford to let apprentices spend a fifth of their time away from work.

Association of Employment and Learning Providers boss Mark Dawe has called for greater flexibility in the rule, particularly to allow apprentices to study in their own time.

If an apprentice is keen to study out of hours, and the employer and provider both agree to it, “why are we stopping them from doing that if they’re getting the knowledge, skills and behaviour they need to get the apprenticeship?” he asked at last year’s FE Week Annual Apprenticeships Conference.