Funding will be at risk of clawback from August where an apprentice drops out without making enough progress towards their planned training, the Education and Skills Funding Agency has revealed.
But providers are up in arms about the bureaucracy required to be compliant with the rule, which they say is “impractical” and flies in the face of government efforts to simplify the system.
The new requirement, published in the ESFA’s draft apprenticeship funding rules for 2022/23 (pictured above), states that where an apprentice withdraws from their programme and they have made “insufficient progress towards their training plan”, then funds will be at risk of recovery.
By insufficient progress the ESFA said it means the apprentice is “more than four weeks behind on the planned delivery of training, but the training has not been replanned or the apprentice has not been put on a break in learning”.
Around half of all apprentices on the government’s new-style apprenticeship standards have dropped out in each of the past two years.
FE Week understands the ESFA wants to introduce the rule in an effort to tackle cases where providers have received monthly payments for apprentices up to the point they dropped out but had not delivered the amount of training claimed for.
The ESFA pointed out that the requirement for an apprentice to be “actively learning”, or to be put on a break in learning after four weeks, has been in the funding rules since 2018/19.
A spokesperson said the agency is now strengthening this area to “ensure learners are getting the level of training they rightly expect”.
But providers have complained that replanning the delivery of training, which must be agreed with and signed off by the employer, every four weeks is impractical. Those that spoke to FE Week but did not wish to be named said it is not uncommon for some apprentices to go six to 12 weeks without training, particularly in hospitality and care sectors where there are busy spikes throughout the year.
Providers claim that the four-week rule is also inflexible to account for holidays, illness and when apprentices learn at different speeds.
“Active learning” can include off-the-job training or English and maths. Sector leaders question how auditors will measure progress and quantify how effective that learning is.
The providers said they understand the intent behind the ESFA’s rule, but warned that agency officials are failing to take into consideration the practicality of complying with it for every apprentice.
One senior leader from a large apprenticeship provider said compliance with the rule will depend on how well ordered each provider is in terms of keeping on top of learner progress, including what systems they have in place and how they can evidence it.
“Big providers who have invested heavily in rigorous evidential methods should have this covered, but I can imagine across the wider sector, especially with smaller providers, I can understand how they would be very concerned about this.
“The ESFA is asking for learners to be on track and for providers to not claim funding whilst apprentices are not making progress. So I get it on paper but it is harder practically, and some providers will get caught out which means money clawed back.”
The ESFA published the draft apprenticeship funding rules for 2022/23 on May 27 and included a number of other changes that have been well received by the providers, such as removing the 20 per cent requirement for off-the-job training and replacing it with a baseline. The agency has also watered down English and maths requirements.
Skills minister Alex Burghart said the changes had been made in an effort to make the apprenticeship system “simpler to use” for employers, training providers and apprentices themselves.
But providers said the introduction of the clawback rule for apprentice drop-outs who make slow progress seems more like “complification” than simplification.
The funding rules are only in draft version and could change before they come into effect from August 2022. Providers have until June 24 to submit their feedback.