I was very pleased to read the recent FE Week report about the emerging success of the pilot to flex functional skills minimum requirements to entry level 3 for apprentices with learning difficulties who don’t hold education and health care plans (EHCPs). However, it raises some interesting questions. In particular, why is the Department for Education (DfE) intent on keeping rigid English and maths exit requirements for everyone else?
A couple of weeks ago, in response to our freedom of information request, the DfE revealed that since 2017 only 1,420 out of over 1.7 million apprentices (just 0.08 per cent) have used the existing flexibility to lower the required completion level where learning difficulties exist.
This is not because there aren’t many apprentices with this need. As the SEND community has been telling the DfE for literally years, it is because the necessary requirement for an education and health care plan (EHCP) to ‘prove’ such learning difficulties before the flexibilities can be applied is a serious impediment.
Many EHCPs don’t refer to learning difficulties that would impact on English and maths. In addition, the process to get one is so long-winded that if the apprentice doesn’t have an EHCP on commencement, they won’t get one in the eight-week time period allowed for the flexibility to be put in place. (Quite why it’s taken so long for the DfE to at least extend the period in which the exemptions can be applied is baffling in itself.)
There’s also the issue that as recent LSE research has shown, those with SEND in wealthier parts of the country have a higher chance getting an education, health and care plan (EHCP). Local authorities often view EHCPs as a cost point rather than a support mechanism and where money is already short, the opportunity to gain a comprehensive EHCP can take a hit. The whole EHCP system is therefore in dire need of reform, with just one example being the fact that it is not a level playing field for all those who could benefit from the wider support eligibility it offers.
What is also interesting is that skills minister, Robert Halfon MP sees the pilot’s success as “incredibly encouraging” in opening access to apprenticeships. Clearly, an apprenticeship with a lower level of English and maths accreditation is as vocationally valuable in his view as any other. This raises the question: why insist on every apprentice having an accredited level 1 qualification in English and maths if that level actually makes little or no difference to the value or efficacy of the apprenticeship?
There is no apparent inherent advantage in the apprenticeship having English and maths qualifications as an exit requirement. Not only does this make apprenticeships an outlier (A levels and T levels don’t require them), but these exit conditions are often the very reason for the qualifications’ near-fifty per cent drop-out rate. Worse still, they can stop many from even signing up for an apprenticeship in the first place.
This absolutely does notmean that English and maths aren’t vital skills, or that they should somehow be removed from apprenticeships. But study towards English and maths as a condition of funding rather than an exit requirement would mean employers and providers could target the essential literacy and numeracy skills actually needed for a particular occupation rather than forcing the apprentice’s attention to unnecessary elements that bear little or no relation to what is vocationally essential.
I’m pretty sure the SEND pilot was not intended to highlight the strength of the case for English and maths qualifications to be dropped as an exit requirement for apprenticeships – but that does rather appear to be the case. Making this change would ensure we maintain literacy and numeracy as a central part of the apprenticeship but allow many more apprentices to build, refine and demonstrate their vocational skills to the benefit of themselves, employers and society as a whole.