ESFA U-turns on banning providers from assessing learning difficulties for funding

The government has U-turned on a controversial new funding rule which could have meant apprentices’ learning difficulties could have gone undiagnosed.

In its draft 2021/22 apprenticeship funding rules for main providers, the Education and Skills Funding Agency had proposed banning providers from assessing apprentices for funding for any learning difficulties as a standard part of enrolment.

Yet the agency has now updated the rules to strike out that clause.


ESFA has ‘thoroughly reviewed’ rule

A summary of changes document for the rules explains: “We received significant feedback about the changes we had proposed to the learning support section of the rules and accepted that there were further changes we needed to make.

“We have therefore undertaken a thorough review of this section and have worked closely with provider representatives and other stakeholders.”

The learning support section itself warns it has been “substantially amended,” and now reads: “Before a claim for learning support funding can be made, an assessment must be undertaken to identify whether an apprentice has a learning difficulty or disability that directly impacts their ability to complete the apprenticeship on which they are enrolled.”

The funding entitles providers to £150 a month for a learner with a learning difficulty or disability, to pay for adjustments to complete their apprenticeship.

Until now, many providers ran the assessments as part of their enrolment process to identify barriers to learning; for example, being disorganised.


Sector leaders ‘delighted’ government has listened

Providers were in uproar when the ESFA proposed they “must not put apprentices through a generic needs assessment, where there is no prior assumption of need, to solely result in a need being found and payment requested”.

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive Jane Hickie told FE Week it was “totally wrong,” and providers warned it could have increased dropout rates as apprentices would not have accessed the support they need.

Ofsted, which has strict rules for providers assessing an apprentice’s proper starting point, said: “It is clearly best for learners if a specific learning difficulty or disability has been diagnosed at the outset.”

Reacting to the ESFA dropping the proposed rule, Chris Quickfall, chief executive of Cognassist which provides learning difficulty assessments to providers, said he was “delighted” the government “has listened to the concerns of multiple parties and safeguarded access to funding for apprentices with hidden learning needs.

“We champion assessment upon enrolment as standard because, unfortunately, too many people reach adulthood without a clear understanding of how they think and learn, including any level of neurodiversity they may have.

“We welcome the change of approach by ESFA and support the greater focus on how funding can best be used to support those with learning needs to ensure everyone can flourish in education and work.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our priority is to ensure that apprentices with learning difficulties or disabilities get the support they need to complete their apprenticeship and build a successful career.

“We have listened to feedback and revised our rules so they are as clear as possible and will ensure learning support funding reaches those who need it.”

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