An ‘outstanding’ apprenticeship provider has been ordered to pay more than £50,000 to a former apprentice for discriminating against her disability during a functional skills exam.
Manchester Employment Tribunal judge Rhodri McDonald ruled that the dismissal of Miss S Molyneaux, as she is named in court documents, from Apprentify Limited was also “significantly influenced” by allegations she made of sexual harassment.
Apprentify was found to have breached the Equality Act for disability discrimination and unlawful victimisation after failing to make reasonable adjustments for the former digital marketing apprentice, who was also a social media employee of the company.
Molyneaux said the experience had hindered her ability to complete the apprenticeship and find alternative employment.
In a statement provided by her solicitor, she told FE Week: “Apprentify was wholly responsible for my unfair dismissal, disability discrimination and for me not being able to successfully complete my apprenticeship that I worked so hard to complete, thus hindering my efforts to secure an alternative apprenticeship or gainful employment elsewhere because of what they did.”
Apprentify is a Cheshire-based company set up in 2016 by Paul Drew that started delivering apprenticeships in 2018. The company provides online, nationwide apprenticeships for nearly 300 apprentices studying mostly level 3 digital marketing and content production.
Molyneaux joined Apprentify in May last year and was at the time a disabled person with anxiety, depression, and dycalculia – a mathematical learning disorder. She started at the company with a job as social media executive and was already enrolled onto a digital marketing apprenticeship with Apprentify.
She was scheduled to complete her apprenticeship by September 11, 2022 upon passing a level 2 functional skills maths exam. A month after joining, Molyneaux failed her mock maths exam.
Apprentify fired her on August 3, which a judge found breached the Equality Act on the grounds of disability discrimination.
The judge ruled that Apprentify treated her unfavourably because she failed her exam and had failed to make reasonable adjustments which would have improved her experience sitting the exam.
The former apprentice had an additional learning support individual learning plan and a functional skills tutor to help prepare for her exam. The judge accepted her testimony that the company had given her no notice of the mock exam, “which added to the pressure on her”, but said he needed more specific evidence about the likelihood of her passing it had Apprentify made the reasonable adjustments.
He added that Molyneaux described how she was seen as a “troublemaker” for reporting issues of bullying and sexual harassment and her dismissal was also a breach of the Equality Act on the grounds of victimisation.
“I found it [the dismissal] was significantly influenced by the claimant having done protected acts by reporting an allegation of sexual harassment of a colleague to the respondent on 11 July 2022 and attending a meeting with that colleague about the allegations on that same date,” Judge McDonald said.
Jonathan Fitchew, Apprentify group chief executive, apologised to Molyneaux for the distress caused by the failure to accommodate her learning needs.
“We felt, at the time, that we had taken all the necessary steps to support her in completing her studies. However, we now acknowledge that we fell short in this particular case,” he said.
“We have learned some valuable lessons, and as a result have put in place a more robust set of HR systems and processes under a new HR director, to ensure our people are given all the support they need for a successful apprenticeship experience.”
The pay-out totalled £52,348.25 and was calculated by paying Molyneaux’s net loss of earnings until she was supposed to graduate, an injury to feelings payment, a 15 per cent ACAS uplift for the lack of proper disciplinary process, plus interest and compensation following taxation.
Just a few weeks after her dismissal, Apprentify was inspected by Ofsted for the first time. That November, a glowing report was published, awarding the provider an ‘outstanding’ grade.
Despite the positive report, inspectors pointed out that leaders at Apprentify were aware that the very few apprentices who require functional skills in English and mathematics “do not always receive support early enough in their apprenticeship”.
“As a result, a few apprentices do not pass their functional skills examinations. Leaders have recently recruited new staff to provide support but, at the time of the inspection, the impact of these changes could not be seen.”
Molyneaux said in a statement that the Ofsted inspection “clearly avoided ongoing staff grievance issues”.
She added: “In view of the damning tribunal judgment, I am naturally very disappointed to learn that Apprentify was awarded an ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted inspectors in November 2022.”