Apprenticeship leaders have hailed the early success of a “game-changing” pilot that aims to make apprenticeships more accessible to people with learning difficulties.
Hundreds of people who found themselves blocked from apprenticeship opportunities under government requirements are now enrolling on programmes thanks to a new English and maths exemption.
The “LDD apprenticeships English and maths flexibilities pilot” was launched by the government in May to allow, for the first time, those without a pre-existing education health and care plan (EHCP) or statement of learning difficulties assessment (LDA) to work towards a lower level of functional skills.
Under current rules, apprentices must achieve level 1 English and maths functional skills qualifications if they’re on a level 2 apprenticeship and did not pass the qualifications at GCSE. And if a similar learner is on a level 3 or higher apprenticeship, they must achieve functional skills at level 2.
The rule is often cited as a common reason why there is a near-50 per cent drop-out rate in apprenticeships nationally.
Those with an EHCP or LDA can, however, work towards and pass the lower level of functional skills English and maths at entry level 3.
Around 20 providers have been trialling a change to the rules that allows special educational needs and/or disabilities coordinators (SENDCOs) to conduct additional assessments and judge whether a learner without an EHCP or LDA – but with equivalent needs – can be approved for this flexibility.
HIT Training had fewer than 20 apprentices eligible to work towards lower levels of functional skills last year, but since the EHCP requirement has been removed they’ve referred over 100 learners to their SENDCO for assessment of their eligibility, according to chief executive Jill Whittaker.
She told FE Week the relaxing of the Department for Education’s “really restrictive rules” is making a “huge difference” to the 67 people her national hospitality and care provider currently has on the trial.
A further 21 are awaiting the outcome of their assessment to join the pilot.
“A lot of people who didn’t pass English and maths at GCSE were often hiding a learning difficulty,” Whittaker told FE Week. “There are certain apprenticeships where you don’t really need the government’s prescribed level of English or maths to become occupationally competent.
“Instead of continuing to make them a failure, this pilot allows them to participate, occupationally, in a skills programme that is going to be of benefit to employers and UK plc, as well as for that individual. It provides social justice.”
Providers involved in the pilot have no set target number of apprentices to test out this new approach, and no extra funding has been handed over. Every provider that spoke to FE Week called for it to be rolled out nationally once it concludes in April 2024.
Dynamic Training, based in the southeast, has eight apprentices on the trial with another six pending their screening process.
Head of operations Vanessa Cole said the pilot has enabled employers to “widen the scope of applicants to pathways and programmes, benefitting NHS workforce development”.
English and maths has been a barrier
Ali Khan, managing director of ELA Training Services in London, has 14 apprentices on the pilot with another 18 in the six-week, one-to-one screening process. His provider is receiving up to 15 new referrals a month for the pilot of which he expects at least 50 per cent to be accepted.
He told FE Week: “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. This is also necessary to protect achievement rates and maintain viability amid rising costs and low functional skills funding.
“There are learners of all ages who are fantastic at their job, passionate to progress, however English and maths has been a barrier to them accessing learning opportunities to enhance their career progression. Many of us are neurodivergent, and this should not be a barrier anymore. We sincerely hope the success of this pilot will support a change in the current policy, and widen participation on to apprenticeships.”
Daniel Redland, director of Tempdent, said maths is often a “real blocker” to a lot of aspiring apprentices in the dental sector who have “struggled through school due to a variety of learning difficulties that have not been fully identified or recognised through an EHCP”.
This pilot has enabled Tempdent to “eradicate barriers to entry” for 11 learners so far.
Exeter College has 16 apprentices on the pilot on programmes including light vehicle, bricklaying, dental nursing, hospitality, data analyst, hairdressing, and carpentry.
The flexibility has “motivated them to approach their studies without fear and they are energised to succeed” as it has “removed the stress of what can be multiple failures associated with maths and English”, according to apprenticeship success coach, Helen Baker.
While all providers were wholly positive about the pilot, they did stress that it is essential for providers to have a dedicated SENDCO to ensure it is not misused and for accurate assessments to be made.
Skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon told FE Week it is “incredibly encouraging that the pilot has been a success so far”.
“A learning difficulty or disability should never be a barrier to embarking on a rewarding career. That’s why we are conducting this pilot – to understand how we can remove the barriers that stop disabled people applying for apprenticeships, which are the best way for people of all ages and backgrounds to kickstart their career, earning a wage while learning the skills employers are looking for.”