Decreasing level 2 opportunities compromises levelling up

Decreasing opportunities for level 2 qualifications are a levelling up own-goal and a threat to employers, providers and learners, writes Joe Crossley

Decreasing opportunities for level 2 qualifications are a levelling up own-goal and a threat to employers, providers and learners, writes Joe Crossley

26 Nov 2022, 5:00

At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) in partnership with Qube Learning, my co-panellists and I discussed how decreasing opportunities for level 2 candidates in further education will compromise the levelling up agenda and force some learning providers to close due to funding shortages and poor policy making.

The discussion, chaired by AELP’s director of policy, Simon Ashworth and including employer representatives from the healthcare and retail sectors, highlighted the extent to which funding cuts, functional skills grade requirements and lack of flexibility will also impact on staff retention.

That the government has remained committed to boosting apprenticeship achievement rates to 67 per cent by 2025 is to be welcomed. However, the cut in level 2 opportunities is a serious setback and will totally undermine this goal.

The withdrawal of this funding is undoubtedly an increasing concern: many employers rely heavily on the apprenticeship levy, so any reductions or removal would place participating businesses and the apprenticeships they offer in jeopardy.

The continuing squeeze on funding and the government’s view of level 2 provision need further attention to ensure learners and employers are offered the right choice of programmes. While we are not against devolution, higher level or degree apprenticeships, there must be a clear pathway to allow all learners to progress in their education and career and to access these routes.

Qube Learning has used single units funded through the adult education budget to allow employers to meet their priorities and help get people into work, with very high achievement rates. However, last summer many of these units were no longer funded impacting on delivery for the initial two months of this contract year.

Many school leavers now lack the skills for a level 3 apprenticeship

Everyone on the panel agreed wholeheartedly that many school leavers are now leaving secondary education with lower-level qualifications and lacking the skills needed to be accepted on a level 3 apprenticeship. This highlights even further the need for level 2 placements, without which a vital pathway to career progression can be closed.

Maths in particular has become a real challenge, because it is not currently being tailored to the apprentice roles which candidates are applying for. This means that if some employers remove level 2 apprentices altogether, then many school leavers will be locked out of careers that they could have excelled in.

Meanwhile, the current economic climate means employers are understandably even more preoccupied with costs and budgets. This means it is all the more imperative that we are able to meet candidates where they are and progress them from there.

But even among those who are able to start at level 3, doing so without the basic skills covered at level 2 only creates a greater risk of dropping out. So not only are employers essentially being forced to reduce (or even totally remove) level 2 apprenticeships because funding has either been withdrawn or is too opaque to access, but the policy is bound to increase risk-averse decisions about who is accepted at level 3.

Non-regulated provision and single-unit funding gave providers the opportunity to agree the types of people, skills and knowledge they needed with employers, and we saw a greater return on achievement as a result. 

So the problem is not solely lack of provision at level 2, but the policy around it. For example, reductions to funding bands have a knock-on effect for other issues such as end-point assessment charges. Where funding bands have been reduced, some providers have gone out of business.

Last week’s autumn statement had precious little to offer the further education and skills sector, but levelling up remains a priority. A transformation of jobs and skills is evidently a central aspiration for Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt.

To deliver that promise, this new government must seriously reconsider the lack of funding and provision for level 2 apprenticeships and streamline the policy surrounding them.

This isn’t just a question of avoiding damage to their own political vision and agenda. More importantly, it’s an urgent matter of insulating young learners from the life-limiting damage of becoming NEET and of protecting the economy from more damage from skills shortages and unemployment.

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