The government has been warned that many apprenticeship training agencies (ATAs) will close down under plans for new flexi-job apprenticeships.

A consultation launched on Tuesday about making all 111 ATAs apply to a new register of approved flexi-job apprenticeship schemes also has one agency boss worried that it could put learners at a disadvantage when seeking a job.

Humber ATA chief executive Iain Elliott said the government should “be very careful that you’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

Apprenticeship training agencies launched in 2009 to hire apprentices and then place them with a host company that would pay the agency to cover the salaries and administration costs.

Rishi Sunak

Flexi-job apprenticeships were announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak in his Budget in March to help industries where project based employment is the norm.

This practice means employers, in sectors such as creative, agriculture and construction, struggle with the 12-month minimum apprenticeship rule.


New flexi-job schemes may ‘disadvantage’ job-seekers

But Elliott said the proposals, which include £7 million to start new agencies to place apprentices with multiple employers, could lead to ATAs “ceasing to exist”.

His agency operates a “more traditional model”, with apprentices assigned to one employer, so he worries that the new register could stop them working in their usual way.

“Is the DfE saying they need you to reapply because ‘we need a better register, we need more control. If you want to do flexi-jobs, great. If you just want to stick to the model that you’ve been operating, then that’s fine’?”

But “if they stop some ATAs from operating, what they’re probably going to end up doing is disadvantaging both employers and young people from getting a job”.

David Marsh, chief executive of leading apprenticeship provider Babington, also worries learners could lose jobs with ATAs in the switchover from the current, dormant register of agencies.

“I think the transition to this for current ATAs needs to be managed very carefully as apprentices are already employed by them, or have job offers to join them imminently,” he said.

He also warned the Department for Education (DfE) announcement will “raise a high level of risk for these learners that their ATA could not exist in the future due to the unknown register refresh”.

A formal launch of the new flexi-job apprenticeships scheme is scheduled for next January.


‘If you’ve got concerns about ATAs, take them off the register’

Both Marsh and Elliott voiced support for the idea of flexi-job apprenticeships, with Elliott saying: “Any scheme that gets more apprentices through those industries has got to be welcomed.”

Marsh has suggested it “would be sensible for the Education and Skills Funding Agency to automatically include any current ATAs into the new register to ensure consistency of employment for these apprentices and reduce more uncertainty”.

The register of ATAs has been in place since 2012 but shut to new applications in 2018. The DfE has since become concerned new and existing ATAs were running without monitoring or oversight arrangements.

The DfE’s consultation document reads: “We will also develop a process for monitoring and assuring the compliance of approved flexi-job apprenticeship schemes with the conditions of entry to the register.”

They will also consider if flexi-job schemes “should have to apply to alter the terms of their entry on the register – for example, if they wish to offer a wider range of apprenticeship standards”.

But the process ATAs underwent for the original register “was very stringent,” says Marsh, “so as long as their basics, like financials, are still in place”, then their place on the new register “needs to be confirmed very quickly to reduce uncertainty”.

Elliott added: “If you’ve got concerns about the way some ATAs are operating, then just take them off the register.”

Only ATAs on the new register will be able to access funding from the £7 million pot, the DfE has said. Applicants will be invited to join the register from July 2021.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We have launched the consultation precisely so we can hear views from existing ATAs about the future operating framework and we would encourage organisations to respond.”

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