Relax functional skills rules for autistic apprentices, says ex-minister

Many autistic people "struggle" to complete higher level apprenticeships due to maths and English tests, the ex-minister said

Many autistic people "struggle" to complete higher level apprenticeships due to maths and English tests, the ex-minister said

A former cabinet minister has called on the government to help autistic people into work by relaxing apprenticeship functional skills requirements.

Ex-justice minister Sir Robert Buckland published a review this week containing 19 “practically achievable” recommendations for getting more autistic young people into work.

Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures suggest that about seven in ten people with autism are out of work, compared to five in ten for all disabled people.

Buckland is calling on the government to give apprentices with autism an exemption from the need for higher level functional skills by self-declaring their special needs.

He said many autistic people “struggle” to complete level three or higher level apprenticeships due to the requirement for level two qualifications in English and maths.

Under current rules, people with learning difficulties have an option to complete entry level three functional skills instead.

However, this option requires the apprentice to have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), which Buckland said are “difficult to obtain”.

Demand for EHCPs, which are carried out by local authorities, increased by a fifth to 114,500 between 2021 and 2022, with only about half of assessments completed within the 20-week target for completion.

Buckland believes his recommendations, which also include raising awareness of autism with careers advice services and recruiters, would make a “radical improvement” to the low employment rates.

The former minister, who has long campaigned on issues around children with special needs, said employers are “missing out” on skills that autistic people could be contributing.

He cited DWP figures that suggest only 30 per cent of people with autism are in employment, significantly lower than the overall disabled people’s employment rate of 53 per cent.

Charity Autistica, which supported the review, estimates that about one million autistic people are living in the UK.

In April, the Department for Education (DfE) is due to reach the end of a pilot that tested a similar relaxation of functional skills requirements to Buckland’s recommendation.

Around 20 providers in the pilot have been allowed to give people with autism who lack an EHCP or Learning Disabilities Assessment (LDA) an exemption from functional skills requirements following an assessment by a special educational needs and/or disabilities coordinators (SENDCOs).

Last November, some providers in the pilot told FE Week they were enrolling hundreds more people with learning difficulties thanks to the exemption.

Ali Khan, managing director of ELA Training Services in London, said: “Whether functional skills are fit for purpose or not, providers have had to set challenging benchmarks for applicants to achieve during their initial assessment so that we are not setting up apprentices to fail.”

Buckland said the outcome of this pilot should be used to “determine the next steps” – including a possible change to the funding rules.

He has also recommended the government set up a task force to oversee the implementation of his recommendations, chaired by a “respected independent person” who would represent the needs of autistic people.

Functional skills qualifications have also been described as a barrier to progress for apprentices without disabilities due to their difficulty and the cost of delivery to providers.

Writing in FE Week last year, Paul Warner, director of strategy and business development at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) said functional skills qualifications “no longer serve the purpose” that they were designed for.

Buckland’s review publication comes after the government’s “Back to Work Plan,” launched with the Autumn budget statement in November last year, which aims to help up to 110,000 unemployed people with mental or physical health conditions into work.

The DfE was approached for comment.

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One comment

  1. Helen Small

    As a functional skills maths teacher with aspergers I agree with the report though there are 2 issues; who will have done the initial diagnosis and secondly the functional skills would be functional if it didn’t include such areas as estimated mean, scatter diagrams, probability and coordinates. I find it very difficult to explain the usefulness in day to day life.