DWP’s own research casts doubt on revived training scheme’s success

'There was less evidence that SWAPs moved claimants into employment, despite this being a key intended outcome'

'There was less evidence that SWAPs moved claimants into employment, despite this being a key intended outcome'

A long-running training scheme for unemployed people has only helped a “small number” into work, according to government research that has gathered dust for over a year.

An estimated £35 million has been poured into Sector-Based Work Academy Programmes (SWAPs) since they were re-launched as part of the government’s Plan for Jobs in 2020. A further £25 million is budgeted for this year.

The scheme is designed to prevent long-term unemployment by moving benefit claimants into local jobs through a combination of pre-work training, work experience and a guaranteed job interview.

Despite repeatedly celebrating the “smashing” of its target of starting 80,000 people a year on a SWAP, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has failed to publish data showing the impact of the programme.

After a recent FE Week investigation into the DWP’s lack of transparency, the department finally published a report this week that was completed in March 2023 by its in-house labour market analysis division.

Positive experience but doubts over effectiveness

The qualitative report was based on 93 interviews and focus groups sessions carried out in late 2022. It aimed to address the “gap” in understanding whether SWAPs moved people into employment, and whether they then claimed less benefits.

The research found that only a “small number” of claimants reported moving into work, despite the fact that this was a “key intended outcome” of SWAPs.

It was also unclear to researchers whether those who had moved into employment had found roles that were linked to the sector the SWAP training and work experience had focused on.

Although claimants tended to be “positive” about the programme, many doubted whether it was “useful”.

Researchers found that “few” participants were offered work placements and some were “disappointed” because there was no job interview at the end of the programme – two components that were supposed to be mandatory.

Although the government advertises the programme as lasting “up to six weeks”, most participants said it took “two weeks or less” – with SWAPs for some civil service jobs taking only half a day.

‘No closer’ to knowing whether SWAPs work

The DWP refused to say why it failed to publish the report for more than a year after it was completed. The department is also yet to publish an “impact assessment”, understood to have concluded last year, of how many SWAP participants moved into employment.

Sam Avanzo Windett, deputy director at Learning and Work Institute, said although the research suggested the scheme had had “real benefits” for jobseekers and employers, it was “concerning” that many participants did not have work experience or job interviews.

She added: “Crucially, we’re still no closer to knowing whether SWAPs are successfully supporting people into sustainable jobs – in fact, the latest research casts doubt on SWAPs’ employment outcomes and their effectiveness in filling employer vacancies.

“We need data on job outcomes and claimant sanctions to better understand their impact and effectiveness.”

Given the increasing numbers participating in SWAPs, finding out whether they worked was “particularly important”, the report said.

Despite the DWP’s “strong focus” on how many people start SWAPs, staff showed “little evidence” of keeping track of their working life afterwards.

One staff member told researchers: “What we’re not doing enough of at the moment is capturing that result of what the actual outcome of the SWAP was.”

A lack of transparency

In 2020, then chancellor Rishi Sunak stood at the dispatch box and claimed the “evidence” showed SWAPs worked.

But the evidence he was referring to appeared to be research from 2013 and 2016, which had a “restricted” depth of insight because they looked at specific groups – such as young people or employers – rather than the impact of the whole programme.

Despite this lack of evidence, Sunak will have injected £60 million into the scheme by April 2025.

The DWP only began regular publication of data showing the age, sector and location of people starting SWAPs in February this year.

However, this falls short of recommendations made by the parliamentary work and pensions committee last year, which said the department “lacked transparency” around the performance of work schemes such as SWAPs, making an evaluation of their success “unfeasible”.

A spokesperson for the DWP did not respond when asked whether it had made changes based on concerns in the report, but they insisted that SWAPs “helped thousands of people” learn skills, gain on-the-job experience and get into work.

They added: “Our Jobcentre network is one of the biggest local recruiters and alongside SWAPs, work closely with employers to help match jobseekers with roles.”

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  1. Thank you for bringing up the issue regarding SWAPs. While I understand the importance of the system, I believe the key challenge lies not with the SWAPs themselves, but rather with how providers are contacted and utilised.

    I wanted to share a recent success story with you to illustrate this point. Last year, we had the privilege of delivering a program to a zoo hospitality team, consisting of 17 learners. Remarkably, 16 of them successfully transitioned into employment following the program.

    However, the main hurdle we encountered was not the quality of the program or the dedication of the learners, but rather the funding limitations. When using the AEB funding, we often find ourselves constrained by antiquated learning materials that fail to adequately address the communication needs of both learners and employers.

    It’s essential to recognize that many individuals we work with face multiple barriers, ranging from computer literacy to completing mandatory online training. Unlike SWAPs, our program emphasises the importance of fostering understanding between learners and employers, especially regarding the challenges of anxiety and neurodiversity.

    While the zoo hospitality team navigated these challenges admirably, we found that ongoing support was necessary to ensure their success. Removing judgment from both the learning process and the employer’s perspective is paramount to creating an inclusive and supportive environment for all.