Huge employer provider to downsize and scrap all level 2 apprenticeships

A major retailer is scrapping all of its level 2 provision in a move that will see a huge fall in apprenticeship sign-ups across the business and nearly 50 job losses.

Halfords, a large employer that sells motoring and cycling products and has over 8,250 staff across the UK, began delivering its own apprenticeship programme in February 2015 and currently has over 1,100 apprentices on its books.

The vast majority – around 750 – are level 2 retailer apprentices. FE Week has today learned that Halfords has immediately ceased starts on this provision, and the delivery of it will fully end in 24 months when existing trainees finish their course.

This decision is by no means a result of the content of the programme

It is understood that the employer’s apprenticeship staff numbers will be reduced from around 60 to 16 as a result.

The move will come as a big blow to the national apprenticeships programme, which has seen starts at level 2 plummet by more than a third since the introduction of the levy – from 260,700 in 2016/17 to 161,400 in 2017/18. The fall has prompted the government to undertake an urgent review into the issue.

“Against the backdrop of planned changes to the way in which the national apprenticeship scheme is administered, we are shifting our longer-term focus in order to continue delivering the highest quality training,” a spokesperson for Halfords said.

“We will continue to identify methods of leveraging our levy commitments in ways which support our strategic aspirations.”

Halfords was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted last month in a report that lauded its apprenticeship programme for being “clear and incisive”.

A staff email, seen by FE Week, shows that the reduction in the funding band for the level 2 retailer standard, which was cut by 20 per cent from £5,000 to £4,000 in December, was a key reason for scrapping the provision.

“The reduction in funding at level 2 has provided a number of challenges around the cost of delivering a quality programme which meets the needs of the business and our colleagues,” it said.

“In order to design a revised model in-line with the reduced funding bands, we believe this will adversely impact on the quality of programme Halfords can offer, impacting the current curriculum which received praise during our recent inspection.”

The email also revealed that Halfords conducted a “review of our apprenticeship provision in Q3” which highlighted a “number of risks to the current delivery model which if not addressed will negatively impact on Halfords future as an employer provider”.

FE Week asked what these “risks” were but the employer would not say.

We are shifting our longer-term focus in order to continue delivering the highest quality training

Increased staff turnover as a result of “uncertainty” in the retail sector, which is having a “detrimental impact on our outcomes and future success rates for our level 2 programme”, was another reason given for the decision to get rid of the provision.

The email continued: “With the focus on quality gaining further momentum under the new common inspection framework and the impact retail colleague attrition is having on success rates, we have made the decision to cease sign ups on level 2.

“Level 3 and 4 which are linked to our Aspire succession programme will continue to be delivered and new starts of these programmes remain unaffected. We will also look for further synergies and opportunities to deliver similar apprenticeship programmes across the group talent programme.”

Halfords said its existing level 2 team will reduce over the next 24 months to a “permanent team of 16 with the remaining roles being offered over a number of fixed term contracts between now and March 2021 when the final level 2 learners complete their end point assessment”.

Its email to staff concluded: “This decision is by no means a result of the content of the programme or the excellent development our colleagues receive on a daily basis. It is the consequence of delivering a quality level 2 retail apprenticeship within the governing frameworks of the ESFA and Ofsted within which Halfords operate as an employer provider.”