'Off-the-job training in apprenticeships? Clear as mud'

In wrongly explaining the rule for apprentices' off-the-job training, the ESFA has sowed confusion, writes Simon Ashworth

Simon Ashworth

Wrong guidance from the ESFA over apprenticeship requirements has sowed confusion

The “Friday afternoon drop”, when listed companies used to leak anything controversial to the financial markets via the weekend press, has long been outlawed. But one can’t help thinking that government departments and their agencies have not let go of a similar (albeit entirely legal) practice.

Last month - not for the first time with a key document - the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) decided to slip out their updated guidance Apprenticeship off-the-job training - Policy background and examples on a Friday afternoon. In this case, it landed in my inbox at exactly 4.34pm, meaning that the usual amount of concerned emails from our members of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) didn’t immediately arrive in my inbox.

Read more: Apprenticeships: Modest rise in quarterly starts

More views: 'Who is really benefitting from apprenticeships?'

Background: Government launches £2.5m apprenticeship campaign

Sheer confusion caused

But it didn’t take long to get a measure of the sheer confusion that the guidance caused. The ESFA has opened a fresh can of worms on what exactly the rules are when it comes to the off-the-job training component of apprenticeships.

And it has solely itself to blame - especially when it made matters even worse by suggesting that the new proposals were unchanged from before. At the time, I wondered if I had missed something. Before long, the publication of the updated guidance had triggered a full-on performance of the Off-The-Job Training Hokey-Cokey. 

The document in question stated - for the first time - that the 20 per cent of apprenticeships which must be spent on off-the-job training must always be based on 30 hours of work per week, even when apprentices work many more hours.

From one extreme to the other

Over the next few days, the government’s policy on this key area swung from one extreme to the other (lobbing in some redactions for good measure) only to come full circle and end up where it started along with an apology for the confusion caused in this week's ESFA Update newsletter.

Just so no one is in any doubt: the 20 per cent off-the-job requirement is based on "the apprentice’s paid hours, over the planned duration of the training period of the apprenticeship”.  There is no cap based on 20 per cent of 30 hours, despite what the original document claimed.

I could easily draw parallels to the “right room for an argument” sketch from Monty Python, but off-the-job training is no laughing matter. In fact, the challenge of this funding rule for an apprenticeship has been the biggest blocker of new starts for both employers and providers, so confusion like this is even more unhelpful. 

Not-so-great timing

With my head still spinning from the guidance hokey-cokey, out pops a survey from the ESFA asking provides to help government “understand the availability of off-the-job training information and how the policy is working in practice”. I’m not sure that this is going to win any awards for great timing.

So why does this matter?  Well as an example, one AELP member highlighted that in adult care it supports apprentices who typically are employed for 48 hours a week. So, based on their paid hours, that’s a minimum of at least 9-and-a-half hours a week just for the apprentices’ off-the-job training, plus time for maths and English on top of that. Over 12 months, give or take statutory holiday entitlement, that’s around 450 hours of training that’s required for the level 2 care worker and level 3 lead adult care worker apprenticeships.

And it doesn’t come cheap. Once you’ve discounted the cost of the end point assessment, these two apprenticeships are funded at around £2,500 each. That equates to £5.55 per hour of off-the-job (even assuming there is no cost for on-the-job training and supporting the apprentice - something we all know is vital to the value and success of an apprenticeship).  It is almost like the ESFA were looking around for the final nail to hammer into the care sector’s coffin.

'Irrationality of government policy'

It is unsurprising that the number of apprentices in adult care have tumbled since May 2017 - and rather bemusing that government is still saying that there is lack of clarity, and that further research is needed to identify what the barriers to new starts really are. 

Incidentally, both the aforementioned care standards are currently part of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education’s funding band review, so surely the rates must be increased?  Apprenticeships are apparently now all about quality rather than quantity – and, as the Commons Education Select Committee has observed, quality apprenticeships can’t be delivered on the cheap.

The only positive thing this episode has done is expose the irrationality of the government policy that two individuals on the same apprenticeship standard need to undertake different amounts of off-the-job training, depending purely on the number of paid hours a week they work. 

So if one apprentice works 30 hours a week, they need to undertake a minimum of six hours of off-the-job training, whereas someone on 40 hours a week needs to undertake a minimum of eight hours a week.

This is not only unfair, but a burden in so many ways.  With the issue now fully exposed, common sense should prevail and we should stick to the 30-hour calculation which would be the sensible and logical way of eradicating the confusion.

Simon Ashworth is chief policy officer at Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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Simon Ashworth

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