We can ask why Covid testing is delayed for those on work-based learning routes – but there is no good explanation, writes Jane Hickie

I guess we should be used to it by now.

Ever since the pandemic began, hundreds of thousands of apprentices and learners with independent training providers (ITPs) have been at the very back of the queue in terms of receiving government support.

The chancellor has without doubt proved to be an honourable exception on this front but it feels like a constant case of one step forward, and two steps back.

Just when you are hoping that ITPs can go back and do what they do best – that is, look after themselves – a new variant of the virus comes through an airport arrivals hall and you fear the worst. At least the rollout of vaccinations should make a big difference.

But in the meantime, my members have another hurdle to jump.

The education secretary wants learners aged 16 to 19 to return to their education settings on Monday. So the government is ensuring that students at schools and colleges will be given lateral flow tests for Covid twice a week if required.

Apprentices and the many young people on traineeships or study programmes in the same age group with ITPs will not, however, have access to testing in their place of learning until April at the earliest.

Why? We have asked the question many times but to no avail  ̶  there is no explanation. 

‘Plan for April testing still unclear’

After FE Week reported this latest example of unequal treatment, the opposition raised the matter at question time in the House of Lords on Monday. But the minister could only direct these learners to local community testing centres for the next three weeks.  

The flaw in the response is that it doesn’t recognise the high levels of vulnerable and disadvantaged young people that ITPs support. Many are more susceptible to catching the virus, but will not have easy transport links to take them to test centres.  

Before Christmas, ITP learners were not even in the Department for Education’s plans for lateral flow or home testing kits, and AELP had to lobby hard for a change.

However, it was then difficult to comprehend why the DfE didn’t simply use the same system for schools and colleges by sending kits to the ITP’s training centres or somewhere appropriate nearby.

In fact, we are still waiting to hear how the distribution will be managed from April.

In the meantime, the government’s guidance from March 8 requires that most of a learner’s programme hours should take place on site. This is nigh on impossible to do safely if there are no tests available.

‘Traineeships being delayed’

It is especially frustrating when the Chancellor is using the Budget to inject a further £126 million into traineeships on top of last July’s £110 million.

Providers are desperate to start young people as soon as possible on the new traineeships but are now having to delay until April.

April was meant to be the time of relief for providers after months and months of lobbying and debate.

They could finally unblock the logjam of learners who have not been able to take their functional skills tests or undergo their end-point assessment which may involve a practical element.

Although the government has now opened the door to teacher assessment for functional skills qualifications (FSQs), it is still insisting that these are a final resort after a test in the workplace or a remote test.

The onus on the provider and employer is to arrange an FSQ test at the workplace and this is another major reason why we need lateral flow tests as a matter of urgency.

Alongside the almost blatant disregard for the wellbeing of ITP learners, we must not forget the safety of provider staff and independent invigilators in all this.

While providers will put other safety measures in place again, the fear of Covid variants spreading will be a serious concern until everyone has been vaccinated.

Ultimately it is totally wrong for the government to be discriminating against the most disadvantaged young people who have chosen the work-based learning route.

Their lives matter too.