FE Week was joined by apprenticeships minister Gillian Keegan on Monday for our latest webinar on the response to the coronavirus pandemic for the FE and skills sector.
Here were the main takeaway points.
‘Anomaly’ leaving majority of apprenticeships ineligible for ESFA supplier relief
The majority of apprenticeship providers are not eligible for supplier relief from the Department for Education because of the Cabinet Office’s “very specific” policy notice, Keegan said.
She described the support as an “anomaly”, which is “over and above” what almost all other businesses are receiving across the country, and explained that her team worked closely with Treasury to see what parts of the FE sector could use the coronavirus supplier relief scheme.
When asked why apprenticeships funded through the DfE’s digital system, mostly those with large levy-paying employers, are excluded, she said: “I will be honest, it did take us a little bit of time to come out with this. That was because the original purpose of that Cabinet Office notice was actually more for critical suppliers to government in terms of direct services to government, so people maybe operating prison services and all that kind of thing.
“So we had to work with Cabinet Office and Treasury to see if it related to this sector, and that is what resulted in that guidance on Friday. It really is only for those covered under that very specific Cabinet Office notice PPN 02/20.
“You need to look at this as quite specific, quite special under this Cabinet Office notice that has allowed a bit of extra support that goes to those where it has more of an impact, on small and medium-sized business apprenticeships and providers.”
She stopped short on the webcast of expanding on the contractual issue, which many in the sector have queried and on which the Association of Employment and Learning Providers is seeking legal advice.
It was tougher for ESFA to launch supplier relief than MCAs
The minister said some in the sector were concerned the ESFA was “deliberately trying not to” launch supplier relief for providers after mayoral combined authorities announced theirs within days of Cabinet Office’s guidance.
“None of that’s true,” she claimed. “We were trying to do as much as we possibly could, but it’s more difficult sometimes for the department to do it.
“You know we have to obviously get everything agreed through Treasury as well.
“We’re dealing with an awful lot of stuff, quite frankly, so it does make it a little bit more challenging.”
Starts pipeline is the ‘biggest worry’
Keegan said her “biggest worry” is the recruitment of new apprentices and how to keep the “whole pipeline going, with all this uncertainty” during the pandemic.
She claimed that the next “peak” for many apprenticeship starts is September, so “between now and then we really have to make sure that everybody is aware that furloughed and existing employees can start apprenticeships”.
She added that it will be crucial to inform school leavers of apprenticeships as a potential next option.
Minister ‘shocked’ at ‘rubbish’ apprenticeships in early stages of the levy
Keegan expressed concern at historic “low quality” apprenticeships delivery.
“I was quite shocked at some of the lower quality delivery that happened in the first stages of the levy being introduced, and I never want to go back to those days… I’ve met people on the doorstep who’ve actually said to me, this is a load of old rubbish. We have to make sure that every apprenticeship is quality.”
When pressed on whether she believed there was a correlation between low-paid and low-quality apprenticeships, she said: “No, not at all, low quality is low quality
“Low quality and low pay are not necessarily together, but low quality is low quality.”
Traineeships on DfE radar
Keegan was joined by Peter Mucklow, the director of further education at the Education & Skills Funding Agency, during the webcast.
Asked about whether the government was working on plans to add flexibilities to traineeships during the current crisis, as they have done for apprenticeships, Mucklow said “nothing specific” has been drawn up yet, “but that’s something we’re very happy to take away”.
“We will be looking at traineeships. It’s really quite tricky as obviously the work experience placement is such an important part of the qualification,” he added.
Keegan said there are “difficulties in delivering the work placement for traineeships, so they’re looking at that right now”.
‘A big thank you from me to everyone in the sector’
Keegan said the FE sector has done a “remarkable job to keep the show on the road despite massive headwinds and all the challenges we have all had to deal with” and offered the following thank you message.
“Clearly the priority for the sector was to keep people studying, in particular, apprentices, still getting access to continue their studies as much as possible.
“It has been a challenge for many, but from what we have seen, many have stepped up to that challenge.
“Wherever I look there are just great examples of the sector going above and beyond to deliver brilliant experiences to apprentices to continue online learning and for all kinds of other training courses and full-time qualifications.
“New apprentices being signed up – we are continuing to see activity of that kind.
“I have been in business for 30 years before becoming an MP, and I completely understand the difficulty when your business model changes. You have very little time to react, you have got to change your delivery mechanism, change your staff in some circumstances and make difficult decisions about staff.
“The more that we can keep close, discussing things… We are here, we are listening and trying to do our best. But of course, this is across the whole economy, across many sectors, and it is something that none of us was expecting to do just a couple of months ago. “A big thank you from me to everyone in the sector.”