From OOF to WOOF: How to put a leash on apprenticeship completion dates

The growing problem of ‘well out of funding’ learners is often the result of the tail wagging the apprenticeship dog

The growing problem of ‘well out of funding’ learners is often the result of the tail wagging the apprenticeship dog

8 Jun 2024, 5:00

A major challenge that consistently plagues many providers is learners extending beyond their expected programme completion dates. This often leads to unfunded provision or, to use the jargon, out of funding (OOF).

So much so, in fact, that the language surrounding this issue has evolved from the painful-sounding OOF to an almost-exhausted WOOF (well out of funding) in the face of increasing durations far exceeding the norm.

This begs the question: why do these learners linger? Is the essence of the service still intact or have these learners become mere statistics in a bid to sidestep actual qualification achievement rates (QAR), at least momentarily?

The reasons behind learners’ programmes stretching beyond their intended timelines vary, yet common themes emerge across sectors. For those of us deeply involved in governance, we frequently deal with inquiries from providers about benchmarks, acceptable thresholds and strategies to address this pressing issue.

While there is no quick fix, there are proven strategies, systems and processes that can make a tangible difference.

Recruitment stands out as a pivotal concern, most notably ensuring that each learner finds their rightful place in the appropriate programme. As FIN colleague and former inspector James Houston aptly puts it, “sales sell the dream and operations live the nightmare”. In other words, allowing recruitment targets to overshadow retention drives the wrong behaviours.

Assuming you recruit with integrity and therefore have the right learners on the right programme, the most profound impact in successfully reducing the number of learners becoming OOFs lies in reframing the narrative.

Instead of viewing learners who exceed their timelines as statistics, let’s recognise them as casualties of broken promises. Some might think this is an unfair term. However, turning the focus onto ourselves as practitioners with some emotive language makes us more likely to take ownership of the problem.

Let’s recognise these learners as casualties of broken promises

Consider the learners and apprentices who have their goals or aspirations hanging in the balance. When a learner commits to a programme or apprenticeship, it is more than a transaction: it’s a promise of personal growth and achievement within a set timeframe. If a learner goes beyond their planned end date, that promise is broken.  

No one intentionally wants a reputation for breaking promises. But by taking the approach of accountability for the broken promises, provider staff will build in more risk management strategies.  For example, the timing and sequencing of the various learning components play a crucial role.

Deliberate planning for introducing topics, assessments for learning and the scheduling and effectiveness of reviews can help predict and prevent extensions beyond planned end dates.

Where functional skills are included (one of the most common reasons for OOFs), the delivery model needs to identify potential barriers at the start of the programme as a preventative measure, not retrospectively after deadlines have been missed.

Frequency of contact, varying approaches and awareness of seasonal challenges feature in certain industries.

Sadly, reviews are often more about process rather than purpose when we should be celebrating milestones and impact on the workplace. Highly effective reviews pull together all the components of an apprenticeship and highlight positive workplace impact while measuring progress over time and identifying potential hurdles early.

Tutors on the ground have a good grasp of where the pressure points are. By reframing how we consider and support learners approaching their planned end date or deemed OOFs, we can drive change and have a significant impact.

Some providers may feel that too many factors are beyond their control, but I’ve seen this reframing approach really work. The change in perspective challenges us to take ownership of our responsibilities, recognising that it is not just about finances but about the trust and commitment we owe the learners we recruit to provide them with the opportunity to succeed.

It definitely becomes a more uncomfortable conversation with leaders and managers when talking openly about broken promises, but you might be surprised by the innovative ideas that emerge.

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2 Comments

  1. One thing to add to this Kerry, and I would argue possibly the main reason for OOFs, is providers not having then appropriate staff and the funding rules not allowing this as sufficient grounds for a break in learning. A member of staff leaves and a lack of resilience or capacity in the system means that all too often apprentices coast with no subject expert to drive the learning. By the time a replacement member of staff is found the learners could be months behind…