Complete the picture: Remove the eight-week time limit on apprenticeship English and maths flexibilities

Barriers for apprentices with learning difficulties are slowly coming down, but the government has missed a trick in its latest apprenticeship funding rules, argues Paul Warner

Barriers for apprentices with learning difficulties are slowly coming down, but the government has missed a trick in its latest apprenticeship funding rules, argues Paul Warner

11 Apr 2024, 6:00

There are some very welcome proposed changes to the apprenticeship funding rules for 2024/25, including some significant moves to remove barriers that those with learning difficulties can experience in accessing the support that they need.

The ability to conduct learning support assessments at any time during the apprenticeship makes perfect sense and is long overdue.

Similarly, the rollout of the SEND flexibilities pilot allowing those without education and health care plans (EHCPs) to access learning support funding is very welcome. 

But there remains an arbitrary and unjustifiable eight-week time limit to file an English and maths flexibility for apprentices with disabilities, special educational needs or learning difficulties.

The EHCP system, whilst well-intentioned, is cumbersome, and lengthy, and the criteria that local authorities use to formulate them vary so widely that their use as a common framework for access to national funding has not been fit for purpose for some time.

In 2016 I was privileged to have been part of the Maynard taskforce that recommended flexing minimum English and maths requirements to entry level 3 for apprentices with learning difficulties, a recommendation the government accepted in full and implemented. 

But between 2017 and 2023, only around 1400 learners have been able to use this flexibility, which (given there were about 2.1m total starts over this period) is appalling – that’s 0.06 per cent of starts when other data indicates that over 7 per cent of apprentices have cognitive learning needs that should qualify.

The requirement for an EHCP to identify such learning difficulties has been a major reason, so dropping this requirement is a big plus. 

But it’s frustrating that there is one further logical move that could and should have been made to complete this picture that inexplicably has been missed.

Under these draft proposals, to flex minimum English and maths requirements to entry level 3, the assessment has to be completed within the first eight weeks of the apprenticeship. 

This makes no sense when only a few paragraphs prior, the rules accept that to qualify for support funding, a learning difficulty may be assessed at any time within the apprenticeship. 

If such an assessment found, several months into an apprenticeship, that the reason the learner has been struggling with maths and English was because of a previously unrecognised learning difficulty, why is it on one hand too late to be properly addressed, even though the provider can claim extra funding to address it? 

It would be more cost-effective for the training provider to acknowledge and work with the apprentice at an appropriate level than throw taxpayer’s money at trying to get them to pass at a level that they will at best have extreme difficulty in succeeding at. 

This just risks their completion altogether, whatever the level of vocational and technical skill they can otherwise display in their profession.

I don’t want to be overly negative because the moves that are proposed are the right ones to make. 

However, while we have the chance, let’s complete the picture by ensuring that a properly evidenced identification of a learning difficulty at any time in an apprenticeship can also mean the flexibility to change the minimum English and maths requirement – not just an assessment in the first eight weeks.

Surely we all want to make sure that those with learning difficulties in maths and English can still have the chance to demonstrate their technical and vocational skills on a par with everyone else.

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