ESFA back-tracks after threat to challenge low apprenticeship achievement rates

Two weeks after the Education and Skills Funding Agency announced they would intervene at apprenticeship providers that failed to meet the minimum standards in 2018/19 they have pushed back the plans by more than four months.

Officials originally said on 29 April they would send out letters to those in scope, understood to be several hundred training firms, stating how they would be challenged “next week”.

However, FE Week understands that only a handful were sent out and only to those where it was decided there was no need for action.

The remaining and vast majority of letters were finally sent this week, but state that any challenge has been delayed due to Covid-19.

In letters seen by FE Week, the ESFA said: “We have decided not to issue you with additional contractual obligations, which we use to manage the quality and quantity of the delivery of your apprenticeship provision, at this point, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are aware of the continuing challenges surrounding the delivery of apprenticeships under the present circumstances and will monitor the situation closely.

“We will make a final decision on the need for intervention, as a result of failure of minimum standards, later in the year. We expect this to happen as soon as it is possible, but no later than October 2020, when we will write to you again on this subject.”

A  spokesperson for the ESFA confirmed that all providers will receive the same message “where we are deferring our decision on intervention action”.

They could not say how many providers could require challenge as the agency has not yet completed the process of contacting all those in scope.

The spokesperson added that the approach on minimum standards, including the deferral of final decisions on intervention, was agreed “prior” to the notice being published on 29 April, and they have “taken account of the impact of Covid-19 on the provider base (e.g. their need to prioritise work to manage through the immediate challenges) in our decision making”.

Providers have to have more than 40 per cent of their cohort on frameworks and standards above a 62 per cent achievement rate to achieve the minimum standard.

As previously reported, overall achievement rates for apprenticeships dropped 2.2 percent points last year to just 64.7 per cent.

The achievement rate for the new apprenticeship standards were particularly low, averaging just 46.6 per cent compared to 68.7 per cent for frameworks.

The DfE cited apprentice drop-out as the problem, with overall retention rate being 65.7 per cent, meaning more than a third of funded apprentices were leaving before the course had finished.

The agency’s minimum standards document reminds providers that “poor or declining education performance data can lead to escalating intervention action and we will act early in the best interests of students, apprentices and the public purse”.

And action for failing to meet the minimum standard can be as severe as contract termination, according to the agency’s “oversight of independent training providers” operational guidance.

In an FE Week webcast last month, apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan expressed concern at historic “low quality” apprenticeships delivery.

She said: “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.