With the latest figures on apprenticeship starts published today, its easy to get pulled into the debate about whether or not government will hit its three million target, and indeed whether or not it matters.

The Learning and Work Institute has welcomed efforts to expand apprenticeships, but we’re clear that as numbers increase, it is vital that each apprenticeship is high-quality with genuine outcomes, and that no one who is able to undertake an apprenticeships is prevented from doing so. Put simply, our mantra is quality and access.

As today’s levy stats show, funding is key to both of these.

And this applies as much to the wider funding and support model, as it does to the use of the levy. If we want more people of all backgrounds to succeed through an apprenticeship, then we need to ensure that funding models are fit for purpose, and that providers and employers understand how funding can be accessed and used to provide support to all who need it.

If we want more people of all backgrounds to succeed through an apprenticeship, then we need to ensure that funding models are fit for purpose

We were delighted therefore to be asked by the Department for Education to explore the effectiveness of funding to support apprentices with a learning difficulty or disability and/or apprentices from a disadvantaged background – research which has been published today alongside the government’s apprenticeship funding policy.

In May 2017, the new apprenticeships funding model introduced additional support for apprentices with learning difficulties and disabilities, including payments of £1,000 per year for providers and employers working with 19- to 24-year old care leavers or those with an education health and care plan (EHCP), alongside additional learning support, excess learning support and exceptional learning support funds. Disadvantage uplift payments within frameworks were continued as a transitional measure, with a commitment to review support for apprentices from disadvantaged areas in due course.

Our research looked in particular at how support needs are defined, identified and met – and how effective current funding arrangements in ensuring that this happens.

Across the board, providers and employers recognised that some apprentices need additional support to help them access and progress in their apprenticeship. They agreed that this is broadly consistent with the areas where additional funding is made available. However providers also argued that support funding should be more widely available – in particular to cover apprentices who have learning support needs but don’t have an EHCP and those with a range of social and safeguarding needs, perhaps as a result of poor mental health, caring responsibilities, being homeless, or facing financial hardship.

While additional learning support (ALS) and the disadvantage uplift were shown to be well known and used by providers, awareness and understanding of other forms of support were much lower – with very few having claimed funding for 19- to 24-year-olds with EHCPs and care leavers.

In explaining this difference, providers point to a lack of clarity around eligibility and process for claiming ALS as potentially off-putting, suggesting that this has encouraged risk aversion, leading some to only claim for a small proportion for the support they provide.

In contrast, providers were much more positive about the disadvantage uplift, recognising both the stability and flexibility that this provides them with, enabling them to plan provision on a longer term basis.

We are therefore pleased that the funding guidance published today, informed by our research, has confirmed the continuation of the disadvantage uplift and includes a commitment to make the funding rules more clear.

We are also delighted that care leavers will now also receive a £1,000 bursary when they begin their apprenticeships, in recognition of the heightened financial pressures that these young people can face in living independently.

All of this is a great start, though we believe much more still needs to be done. And of course none of this will make any difference unless apprentices and their providers are aware of the changes and confident that they can use these funds to provide support for all who need it, making a positive difference to their apprenticeship experience.

Fiona Aldridge is assistant director for research and development at the Learning and Work Institute

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