It is a mistake for the ESFA to use the apprenticeship achievement rate to measure the quality of provision. Neil Davies explains the true context that should be considered

I understand a journalist’s need to create the eye-catching headline, otherwise their article may get overlooked. A link to an article dropped into my inbox last week and on opening it, I inwardly groaned. Off the webpage sprang: “Providers that failed to meet the minimum standard for apprenticeship achievement rates last year will be informed next week of the government’s ‘action to challenge this situation’.”

The article went on to quote from an FE Week webcast earlier that week in which the skills minister Gillian Keegan had expressed concern at historic “low-quality” apprenticeships delivery and said: “I was quite shocked at some of the lower quality delivery that happened in the first stages of the levy being introduced.”

I feel sure that I join many ITPs who are fed up with statements that malign all our efforts and achievements without, seemingly, having an understanding of the full picture – a picture created by government. I believe some context is important.

The minister links lower quality to the advent of the levy. Whether a fan or not, the source of funding is not related to quality of delivery. Quantum certainly will be. In recent funding band reviews, government has reduced initial funding allocations across many apprenticeships. So if the vast majority of employers are unable to make a cost contribution, what might give if funding is reduced?

The minister and the Education & Skills Funding Agency are using the apprenticeship achievement rate (QAR) as a measure of the quality of provision. I do not see the direct link.

ITPs have done an incredible job in taking the scant new standard descriptors and developing employer-specific training plans. Such radical change is going to take time to implement effectively as both ITPs and employers learn to adapt. Do we believe that all this effort and investment is recognised?

Government insisted that ITPs start delivery of the new standards even though, for many, there were no end-point assessment organisations (EPAOS) approved. ITPs had to design delivery programmes to meet employer needs without knowing what the final assessment criteria might be. Do we believe that this potential systemic mismatch has been considered before criticism is levelled?

New EPAOS had no experience of implementing theoretical processes, and an arbitrary 90 days was deemed an appropriate timescale for end-point assessment. How many ITPs, learners and employers have been impacted by the inability or incapacity of EPAOs to respond to the pipeline of completing apprentices?

How many ITPs suffer financially because the 90 days was not achieved? How many ITPs suffer financially because their programme, agreed with the employer, did not quite map to the EPA final-assessment criteria? This resulted in either the loss of the vital completion element or incurring unbudgeted costs to get learners through EPA, or both.

Without an exemption Level 2, English and Maths became a mandatory element of apprenticeships. I dare say there will be many a tale of ITPs doing their utmost to get a learner through their functional skills, incurring additional costs, losing the 20 per cent completion payment. We all know that, despite best efforts, some learners will not achieve. Is it a fair indicator of quality?

The ESFA QAR number itself is difficult to reconcile and it is too blunt a tool to be an indicator of quality. ITP performance is affected by factors completely outside their influence or control: left employer, changed job role, on maternity leave, sickness absence etc. The raw data is available, so would it not be fairer to be judged on a wider range of factors. Would not a percentage entering EPA gateway and then the percentage achieving be a more interesting measure?

Our organisation was significantly impacted by the lack of capacity in EPAOs, and despite best efforts, a material number of our achievers fell into the following year. Curiously, while writing this article, the expected ESFA letter has dropped into my inbox. Thankfully, no intended action, as they have accepted the reasons behind their number. In our submission, to demonstrate the blip, we were able to point to currently outstanding achievement numbers for this funding year. Symptomatic, but sadly no word of recognition or appreciation of the good work being done.