ESFA audits to check apprenticeship price reductions made to account for prior work experience

The Education and Skills Funding Agency has reminded providers to conduct prior learning assessments when taking on apprentices, and warned they will be audited to ensure price reductions are being made.

New guidance on the rule was published today, and follows the launch of a tender by the agency in February to find a researcher that can explore whether the policy is being complied with.

Prior learning refers to skills and knowledge gained by learners before they start their apprenticeship, and must be taken into account by providers when negotiating a price with an employer to ensure cash is not being used to teach an apprentice something they already know.

Today’s guidance reiterates what the funding rules state: that funds “may be recovered” where initial assessment of prior learning has not taken place.

“Apprentices should not be spending paid time doing training they do not need, and the apprentice will not have a good experience if they are repeating training,” it says.

“Apprenticeship funding should not be used to pay for, or accredit, existing knowledge, skills and behaviours.”

Initial assessments need to be carried out before the apprenticeship starts, which checks how much of the apprenticeship programme the individual requires to reach occupational competency.

“Assuming there is some relevant prior learning, the training provider must assess whether the individual still needs an apprenticeship with a minimum duration of 12 months with at least 20 per cent off-the-job training,” the guidance explains.

“In some circumstances, this amount of training will not be necessary for the individual so the learner is ineligible for the apprenticeship programme and an alternative should be considered.”

Prior learning can include “work experience, prior education, training or associated qualifications in a related sector subject area (this goes beyond just English and maths); and any previous apprenticeship undertaken”.

The guidance adds that there are audit checks to “ensure a price reduction has been made to account for prior learning and the reduced training content required”.

Earlier this month a highly respected funding auditor told FE Week that apprenticeship providers are typically not complying with the rule.

“The ESFA strengthened their funding rules this year and make it very clear that they will claw back funding when providers fail to reduce apprenticeship funding for prior knowledge, skills and behaviour,” said Stephanie Mason, head of further education and skills at the audit firm RSM.

“When conducting reviews since the introduction of the levy, we typically find providers have not fully accounted for prior learning.”

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education also “flagged concerns” about the policy in their the minutes from a meeting of its approval and funding committee last June.

Last March it was revealed that employers were paying the maximum amount in more than 95 per cent of apprenticeship starts since May 2017, when maximum funding rate caps were introduced.

And Ofsted has been finding problems at many new apprenticeship providers like Citrus Training Solutions, where inspectors found last December that many of its 188 apprentices were enrolled on “inappropriate” programmes which merely accredited existing knowledge, skills and behaviours.

DfE has intervened in providers that are not teaching apprentices new skills before.

Last year, the ESFA terminated its contract of Premier People Solutions Limited after Ofsted found many of its 686 civil service apprentices were not developing substantial new skills, knowledge or behaviours.

In her annual report for 2018, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman highlighted how apprentices were “not learning anything new”, but were just getting accreditation for knowledge and skills they already had.