Large apprenticeship providers have hit out at a “nonsensical” funding rule that proposes to punish their firms if they have more than 100 withdrawals or delayed completions.
A new apprenticeship accountability framework, mooted in last year’s skills for jobs white paper, was published for 2021/22 and sets out the quality indicators that providers will be measured against when it comes to intervention, from April.
Controversially, it states that providers will be placed in a ‘needs improvement’ category and become subject to “enhanced monitoring” when the number of apprentices in a cohort are past their planned end-dates, on breaks in learning or have withdrawn is more than 15 per cent or “greater than 100”.
A clarification version of the framework released last month showed that enhanced monitoring could include management conversations with government officials, the development of “improvement plans” and potential referrals to Ofsted.
Providers have accused the ESFA of launching an attack on large apprenticeship firms as they will be “disproportionately penalised” under the “greater than 100” threshold.
“There are many holes in the framework and lots of unknowns but the initial comms seems nonsensical and will more than likely put the majority of apprenticeship providers into ‘need improvement’ category,” said Brenda McLeish, chief executive of the Learning Curve Group.
She gave the example of a provider with 2,500 apprentices that could have a withdrawal rate of only four per cent yet still be subject to enhanced monitoring.
Nichola Hay, chief operating officer of Estio Training, said the policy has “good intentions” but its implementation is “wrong”.
“It is not a fair rule,” she told FE Week. “From sector to sector there are different impacts for breaks in learning, for example, especially following the pandemic.”
Sector leaders estimate that around half of the almost 1,500 apprenticeship providers in England are medium to large in size and typically have more than 100 withdrawals each year.
Sharron Robbie, managing director of the Devon and Cornwall Provider Network, questioned where the government’s resource would come from to adequately monitor all those providers in scope.
She added that while she is supportive of ESFA action to tackle poor-quality apprenticeships, using a “blunt figure” of greater than 100 for all providers was “disproportionate”.
The accountability framework states that from April 2022, the ESFA will use the indicators and thresholds as the starting point for informing where there may be areas of concern.
The ESFA told FE Week that the agency does recognise the greater than 100 threshold will “capture” larger providers.
In defence of the rule, the agency said that while 100 apprentices may for some providers still represent a small percentage, in volume terms this is “still potentially high numbers of apprentices where we would want to seek further information and assurance”.
For those providers showing a significant or highest risk of poor-quality apprenticeship delivery the agency will consider whether suspending apprentice recruitment until improvements are seen.
The accountability framework added that each intervention will be “based on evidence and appropriate to the level of risk to the quality of apprenticeship delivery”.
Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said her members are “extremely concerned” by the proposals. “We strongly support ensuring that more learners complete their apprenticeship, but as the agency well knows, there are often factors for non-completion that are out of the provider’s control, particularly in certain sectors,” she added.
Providers can email feedback on the proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org until March 1.