Many events and consultations have been delayed, but it seems the Covid-19 crisis was not going to get in the way of the Department for Education revealing shockingly poor apprenticeship drop-out rates.

Last year 54,590 apprentices were due to finish the new style standard and more than half of them withdrew from the programme before reaching the end-point assessment stage.

According to a DfE “explanatory paper” that accompanied the national achievement rate tables, exactly 51.7 per cent (28,223 apprentices), were on the course for 42 days or more but then withdrew.

For the minority (26,357 apprentices) that did complete the end-point assessment nearly all passed (96.4 per cent), resulting in an overall achievement rate of 46.6 per cent.

By comparison, 30.3 per cent of apprentices on frameworks dropped out and 98.7 per cent of those that took the assessment passed, resulting in an overall achievement rate of 68.7 per cent – 22.1 percentage points higher than for standards.

Taking a closer look at the official achievement rates for standards by level, level 2 comes in lowest at just 44.3 percent.

But the picture is not universally poor. The assistant accountant standard at level 3 with a cohort of 2,660 had an achievement rate of 63.5 per cent.

Contrast that with the hospitality supervisor level 3 that had a similar sized cohort of 2,230 but an achievement rate of just 39.3 per cent.

Or the hospitality team member at level 3, with a cohort of 3,430 and an achievement rate of an eye-wateringly low 36.2  per cent.

To put these abysmal figures into perspective, the DfE has for years set the achievement rate threshold at 62 per cent.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) says: “Where 40 per cent or more of a training provider’s cohort does not achieve the qualification achievement rate of 62 per cent that provider fails minimum standards. Minimum standards have historically been used to remove some of the poorest training provision from the market.”

And the minimum standards policy for 2018/19 is to “continue to apply Minimum Standards to apprenticeships in 2018 to 2019 as a trigger for intervention.”

For many new and existing providers, delivering predominantly apprenticeship standards, the ESFA could well be about to tell them to stop.

As for Ofsted, despite claiming their new education inspection framework pays far less attention to achievement rates, if more than half of the learners are withdrawing then surely this cannot be ignored?

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education says they “would expect to see achievement rates increasing over time”, something that would certainly result if the ESFA applied their minimum standards policy and stopped providers from delivering those standards with the lowest achievement rates.

The DfE blandly replied that they “recognise there is more to do”.

With the Covid-19 crisis in full swing, just how much of an appetite is there at the ESFA to apply their own minimum standards intervention policy?

Forcing providers to stop delivering certain standards, such as in hospitality, would clearly not be popular with the providers even without a pandemic, but who is thinking of the apprentices?

The reasons will be varied and complex, but more than half of all apprentices dropping out last year before their end-point assessment is frankly indefensible – even in these difficult times.