Hopes for a level 2 business administration standard were shattered today after the new boss of the government’s apprenticeship quango rejected a final plea from employers.

Following years of repeated rejections under Sir Gerry Berragan, the trailblazer group behind the proposal was given a glimmer of hope with Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) chief executive Jennifer Coupland.

She agreed to a final showdown meeting, in which the employers were asked to present new evidence to prove the standard could pass the required criteria.

A chainsaw couldn’t do a better job of removing the bottom rungs of the ladder

FE Week analysis shows that the popular framework version of the apprenticeship, which will be officially switched off from 31 July, attracted 3,064 starts from 346 providers in the first quarter of 2019/20. Of these, 74 per cent were female and 59 per cent were for those under the age of 19.

Over 100 employers have rallied for a replacement standard, but Coupland took no time to make a decision, telling the hopeful trailblazers it was game over by the end of today’s meeting.

Not only did she reject their proposal on the grounds it would never meet the 12 month minimum duration requirement, but she also told them they will not be allowed to submit any further applications for the standard.

This is despite staff in the Department for Education’s traineeship team considering alternative programmes but allegedly ultimately agreeing with the trailblazer group that the proposal should be developed into a level 2 apprenticeship standard.

Lucy Hunte, the national programme manager for apprenticeships at Health Education England, attended the meeting as a member of the trailblazer group and said she was “extremely disappointed” with Coupland’s decision.

“It [the standard] is a vital entry route into the NHS and many other sectors and [this decision] will be incredibly damaging to social mobility,” she told FE Week.

Caroline Bragg, the employability and skills strategy manager at East Sussex County Council and trailblazer lead for the proposed standard, said the IfATE “seems intent on leaving behind tens of thousands of young people who access level 2 apprenticeships each year”.

“There seems to be a lack of understanding of who a level 2 learner is and the barriers facing them,” she added.

In previous rejections of the proposal, the IfATE has cited concerns about overlap with the business administration standard that is approved at level 3.

They’ve also claimed that the duties set out are “not stretching enough to require 12 months employment and training”, including the 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement.

Hunte said if young people leave school without maths and English GCSE then they “simply won’t be able to access a level 3 and in addition many of the entry level roles would not cover the scope of the level 3 business admin standard”.

Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive Mark Dawe said: “It’s really difficult to understand why an organisation, which is now pushing really hard the line that it’s independent and employer led, is going against the wishes of large and small employers in both the public and private sectors.

“Only today the secretary of state has said that he wants ‘funding helping to kick-start careers or level up skills and opportunities’ and here we have a prime example of that agenda being undermined for so many young people who want to get on the ladder of opportunity which the apprenticeship programme provides. A chainsaw couldn’t do a better job of removing the bottom rungs of the ladder.”

He added: “It is about time the officials went on tour and met some of these level 2 learners and employers and told them to their face that they weren’t proper apprentices and had no value for the employers.

“The tour could start by meeting the numerous level 2 business admin apprentices working in the department for education.”

Making the case for the standard during today’s meeting, the employer group presented a final proposal document.

It stated that only 20 per cent of the new apprenticeship standards are available at level 2. In contrast, more than 40 per cent of the old-style frameworks were previously available at this level.

We appear to have another potential sexual discrimination problem

“This will have a significant impact on opportunities for new entrants, particularly young people, progression opportunities within the workplace, and on social mobility overall,” the document said.

“The loss of the business admin level 2 will impact young people disproportionately. In recent years, approximately 30,000 apprentices per annum undertook [the framework], and 83 per cent of these were under 19.

“Removal of the framework will have an impact on in-work progression for existing staff. For example, the NHS has numerous examples of auxiliary staff moving into administration roles through the business administration level 2, and they are unable to access learning at Level 3 or evidence the requirements through their role.”

After being shown that 74 per cent of the starts on the level 2 business admin framework between August and October 2019 were for females, Dawe said it “illustrates again that we appear to have another potential sexual discrimination problem when it comes to giving women high quality apprenticeship opportunities at an early stage of their working lives”.

“I called on the authorities to undertake some research last autumn and I would like them to respond positively to establish how big a problem we really have,” he added.

A spokesperson for the IfATE said: “We only agree apprenticeships where they meet the new higher quality standards.

“Unfortunately, we did not feel that this was the case when the business support assistant proposal was not approved for development last June. Institute officials met representatives of the trailblazer earlier this week but concluded that there was no prospect of a revised proposal being viable.

“Take up on the level 3 business administrator apprenticeship standard has more than doubled since it launched in 2017, which shows there is already a great route to skilled employment in an administrative role.”