DfE goes soft on apprenticeship public sector reporting rule

The Department for Education looks to have relaxed the requirement for public bodies to publish their progress towards the 2.3 per cent apprenticeship target, claiming it is merely “good practice”.

It comes after FE Week found scores of multi-academy trusts, councils and hospital trusts had failed to publicise what percentage of their staff had started an apprenticeship in 2019-20 on their websites by the deadline set by government.

Since the apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017, public sector bodies with 250 or more staff in England have had a target to employ an average of at least 2.3 per cent of their staff as new apprentice starts over the period of April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2021.

Under statutory guidance, the bodies must report their annual progress to government and make the information “easily accessible to the public”, for example, on their website.

The data for how many apprentices start at each body is due on September 30 each year.

Chair of the education select committee Robert Halfon, who implemented the target when he was skills minister, called on public bodies to be “wholly transparent” and to comply with the regulations.

Where they do not, the Department for Education should hold them “fully accountable”, he demanded.

Robert Halfon

However, representative bodies have called on the government to ease off enforcing the rule owing to the pressures the public sector is facing from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite its own rules, the Department for Education told FE Week that while public bodies “must” report the data to central government so that overall performance against the target can be published, it was simply “good practice” for the bodies to publish their own data on their website.

Recognising the challenges organisations are facing this year, the department also said that where data is submitted after September 30, “we will endeavour to take account of it when we publish annual performance data in November”.

Every government department published their data on the Civil Service website towards the end of last month, revealing that one of them had recruited zero apprentices in 2019-20.

Out of the 20 largest academy trusts in England, FE Week could only find the data for one trust in the first week of October.

United Learning, the largest multi-academy trust, which has 72 academies and even has a former Department for Education director general – Jon Coles – as its chief executive, was one of the trusts not complying with the DfE’s rules. A spokesperson said the trust makes the information available “on request” and reports the data annually to the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, Geoff Barton (pictured), said he imagines MATs have not hit the deadline as “they are having to spin so many plates at the moment to manage Covid safety measures, keep their schools open, and reintegrate children back into the classroom”.

He would expect the government to be conscious of these “huge pressures”, and called on the DfE, which enforces the data publication rules, “not to insist upon fairly arcane accountability measures being met to the letter”.

The one trust that did publish its data, Delta Academies Trust, had a workforce of 3,208 as of March 31, 2020 and 0.56 per cent of those were apprentices. A spokesperson said that while they were able to publish the data on time, this “clearly continues to be an exceptionally busy period for everyone working in schools” so it was “inevitable” that some work would be delayed.

Aside from MATs, FE Week also looked at a random sample of local councils in the first week of October and could only find up-to-date apprenticeship target data for one of them, Cornwall Council.

A spokesperson for the Local Government Association, which represents councils nationally, said it encourages councils to publish their progress, and while the LGA does not have a position on whether the rules should be relaxed during the crisis, “we do recognise councils have competing priorities at the moment”.

A random sample of five hospital trusts again only turned up figures on apprenticeships for one organisation, University College London Hospitals.

Health Education England, which commissions apprenticeship training in the health service, said it “does encourage trusts to publish their figures, but clearly there could be delays given current circumstances”.