Apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan has answered questions submitted to Tes by further education teachers and leaders amid the coronavirus crisis.
She said the government was putting in place a range of measures to support apprenticeship providers and colleges, and was keeping a close eye on issues around access to technology for students.
Many providers and colleges are effectively using digital technology, she said – including WhiteHat, which is offering networking socials and access to mental health support to apprentices, and HIT Training, which is providing interactive online classes with students using their own kitchens at home.
She also said a redundancy support package for apprentices was in development, with more information to be published as soon as possible.
Need to know: Government fully committed to T-level delivery in 2020
The minister responded to a range of questions in a video interview, while other questions were responded to in writing.
Coronavirus: Skills minister answers questions on support for providers
Do you have any estimates of how many apprentices are being made redundant, furloughed or are on breaks in learning? What support will be available to apprentices and employers to ensure their return to learning when possible?
Ms Keegan: "Not yet – but we are keeping close to the sector and I have urged associations and organisations to give us what data they have. We know that employers are trying to do the right thing by apprentices and the last thing they want is to furlough them or make people redundant unless they really have to.
"However, I'm personally not convinced everybody – both the sector and, more importantly, employers – have focused on the fact that furloughed employees can continue with their apprenticeships. We want employers, providers and apprentices to make decisions that are most appropriate for them. At present, we are still gathering intelligence from employers and providers on the likely numbers of redundancies, those being furloughed or on breaks in learning. It is a fast-changing landscape.
"Where breaks in learning are required, our goal is that apprentices can promptly resume their apprenticeship and complete their independent end-point assessment. And we’re keen to stress that where apprentices are put on furlough and the government is meeting 80 per cent of their wages, these apprentices can also continue with their training.
"We are developing a redundancy support package for apprentices which will help them reconnect to apprenticeships, vacancies and learning. Please refer to our latest apprenticeship guidance on DfE’s website and more information will be available as soon as possible."
Can you explain to us your rationale for failing to provide the same financial support for independent training providers as you have for colleges?
"Apprenticeship funding is the same for both ITPs [independent training providers] and FE colleges and there is no difference in our support between different sectors. Where funding is in the form of a grant for the delivery of education, as is the case with both schools and colleges, we have taken a similar approach. We are continuing to work with the Treasury and others to understand how our different sectors interact with the government’s business support schemes and will provide further guidance very soon.
"Our top priority is making sure all apprentices can continue studying and complete their apprenticeships, and many providers are offering online learning to ensure apprentices get the skills they need. We are continuing to fund apprenticeship providers for training they are delivering and will make payments in April for that delivery as scheduled. We have also published guidance for apprentices, employers and training providers about online learning, additional flexibilities around breaks in learning and how and when end-point assessments can be conducted.
"Where learning cannot be delivered online or where apprenticeship training needs to be paused, the government is taking unprecedented steps to support individuals and businesses affected by coronavirus. This includes paying people’s wages up to 80 per cent, deferring £30 billion of taxes until the end of the financial year and setting up a new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme."
If GCSEs and A-level results are from predicted grades, how will vocational courses be graded?
"We took the difficult decision to cancel all exams this summer. This is not a decision we have taken lightly, and we know that this will be disappointing for students who have been working hard towards these exams. Our priority now is to make sure that all students can move on as planned to the next stage of their lives and no student is disadvantaged.
"We appreciate that there is a very wide range of vocational and technical qualifications which students were expecting to undertake this summer and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. We have been working rapidly with Ofqual to agree the appropriate approaches for this complex landscape. The education secretary issued a direction to Ofqual setting out the approaches that will be taken and Ofqual also last week provided information on this. Further details will be issued in the coming days and weeks.
"For qualifications such as applied general qualifications and other qualifications focused on progression, as well as certain mixed purpose qualifications such as functional skills, an approach around calculating the final grade will be the most appropriate option. This means that, as far as possible, qualifications used for progression to higher and further education will be treated in a similar way to GCSEs, AS and A levels, with students receiving a calculated result.
"For other qualifications, an approach around adapting assessment may be more appropriate; for instance, undertaking final assessments online. But for some qualifications – for example, those which have a narrow occupational focus or may be linked to health and safety requirements – adapting assessments may not work. We will be working with Ofqual and the awarding organisations to see, in these cases, what the best approach is and ensure that students are not disadvantaged. Ofqual and awarding bodies are working through the detail and further detail will be issued in the coming days and weeks."
Given the concerns raised by awarding bodies about the viability of pushing ahead with three T levels this September, do you think it is wise to postpone for a year, as they propose?
"We have listened to the providers in wave one and the majority of them want to continue – though, of course, they have some concerns. So much work has been put in to get ready for September, and students are already signed up that it is the right decision to go ahead.
"We are aware that the coronavirus will impact those providers due to start delivering the first T levels from September. We are continuing to work closely with all involved to ensure we can continue to roll out the first three T levels from this September as planned. As we recover from the coronavirus it will be even more important than before that we give young people the skills they need to get good jobs, and give British industry a pipeline of young people who are highly skilled and ready to work."