Small employers finally invited onto the apprenticeships system – but only those already accessing non-levy funding

The Education and Skills Funding Agency has officially begun inviting non-levy employers and providers to test its digital apprenticeship system.

An expressions of interest went live yesterday and closes on 5 July, with the trial planned to get underway the following month.

To apply to test the system’s functionality, small and medium sized employers must have an apprenticeship vacancy that will result in an apprentice starting, in September, August or October 2019.

The ESFA said as this is a test phase, the training provider should already have a contract with agency for supporting employers that do not pay the apprenticeship levy, and have money left in their non-levy funding allocation.

Currently, only big employers with an annual total pay bill of over £3 million who pay the levy can use the online apprenticeship service to access training funds generated through the policy.

Small employers were originally expected to be added to the service in April 2019, but was delayed for another year to “ensure a more gradual transition”.

After the delay was announced in August 2018 the ESFA extended contracts for providers delivering training for small employers until March 2020, which is how non-levy-payers train up their apprentices.

But as FE Week revealed in February, training providers’ non-levy funding is running dry and some have even had to turn apprentices away. Many fear the same will happen in 2019/20 as their allocations will not be big enough to meet demand.

From August to December, a small number of employers who do not pay the levy and their associated providers will be able to set up accounts on the apprenticeship service through the first test phase.

The ESFA said providers not involved in the initial test phase will “not be disadvantaged when we further roll out the service and no new funding is available through this functional test”.   

The trial will test a “modest volume” of apprenticeship starts.

The applicants who take part in the development will be allocated on a “first come, first served basis; the ESFA will not be able to guarantee an apprenticeship start until the selection has been made and applicants have been notified”.

Applications should be submitted as a joint bid between employers and providers, the latter of which must be on the ESFA’s register of apprenticeship training providers.

A second window for employers and providers to submit an expression of interest to take part in the trial, who have starts in November and December 2019, will open “later in the summer”.

Through the apprenticeship service employers can: manage their apprenticeship funding, select a suitable apprenticeship standard and an end-point assessment organisation, as well as advertise an apprenticeship and select a suitable provider to deliver their apprenticeship training.

They can also give real-time feedback on the quality of training provision they receive, have control over the amount of apprenticeship funding paid to their training provider on their behalf, and provide government with apprenticeship “demand data to ensure an valuable apprenticeship market place”.