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AELP Editorial – 19 February

By Jane Hickie, Chief Executive:

All eyes are on Monday’s announcement from the prime minister on easing the lockdown restrictions and the planned return for educational settings.  You will already have seen reports that the earliest mainstream educational settings will return is 8 March and we are expecting Boris Johnson to set out a national roadmap.  In its latest guidance the DfE pledged to give at least 2 weeks’ notice to allow learners, providers and parents to prepare, which aligned with the 8 March date.  But the department cautions that this is a “very fluid situation” and therefore AELP is anticipating a phased return to educational settings.  My recommendation is that members need to start to think about access to priority groups.

AELP has pressed both the minister and DfE to include ITPs in the mass covid testing scheme necessary to enable the eventual phased return to education.  We recognise that due to the breadth of the membership this has different impacts of members.  Discussions are ongoing and it seems that the approach currently favoured by the DfE will likely involve home testing kits for ITPs to use.  Depending on what the PM and DfE say, we will update members early next week.

In the context of a return, the need for catch-up funding for work based learning as well as other forms of education should not be forgotten, as we set out in our Budget submission (93-aelp-budget-representations-final-draft.pdf).  Let’s clear up one significant misconception on this: it’s certainly not the case that providers just deliver off-the-job training (OTJT) and employers simply take care of the on-the-job aspect.  When the lockdown is relaxed, the government shouldn’t think that there are no direct costs to providers to worry about because apprentices have logged hours of knowledge through their OTJT.  For the more practical programmes specifically, but not exclusively, there will be a real challenge for providers to support learners in converting hours of knowledge into actual practical competency when they finally get back into the workplace after the lockdown.

At our weekly get-together with the minister, David Hughes and I tried again to inject some urgency into the government allowing teacher assessments again for functional skills testing.  I would like to be able to tell you the ‘perfectly clear’ reasons why the DfE is not changing its position but sadly my notes of the discussion contain no explanation as to what those reasons are despite us pressing the matter.  I hope that AELP members are writing to their local MPs in the way suggested in last week’s Countdown.  On Thursday we kept up the pressure in the media with the publication of my short letter in The Times (Times letters: Protecting freedom of speech in universities | Comment | The Times).

Despite the reported frustrations of providers about the RoATP refresh, the ESFA remains coy about the application criteria and we will probably have to wait until next month before we find out more.  The published guidance hinted that subject-specific expertise is essential to delivering high quality apprenticeships that meet the skills needs of apprentices and employers.  The agency is also considering how this may be identified beyond the initial application process when providers wish to expand their delivery to new areas.

The other major point about the refresh is that the ESFA must incorporate some reasonable form of appeal and opportunity to submit further evidence into the process.  We shouldn’t have instances of good providers being booted off the register after making an honest omission.

On Thursday we had a detailed call with senior ESFA officials on adult education as well as apprenticeships and traineeships.  This took place before we heard that members were receiving news about the absolutely pitiful funding allocations which they are receiving to try and deliver the prime minister’s lifetime skills guarantee (LSG) from April.  I’m afraid that right now the guarantee looks as if it has as much currency as anything in the back of Del Boy’s van.  One large member has told us that their allocation will support a maximum of 10 learners before the end of the academic year.  In any event, we informed the agency of our concerns about delivering a full level 3 qualification properly in a 4-month period.

On the recently launched AEB procurement, we said that it would have been better to cap potential awards to existing contracts because there are a few ITPs, including FY19/20 AEB over-deliverers, with contracts above the new £3m cap.  Another key point made was that these awards will cover LSG provision from April and so some existing adult provision will be crowded out.  We had to remind the ESFA about the clear-as-mud messaging on subcontracting vis a vis the FE white paper.  If grant AEB allocations are being guaranteed non-Del Boy style, then the door has been left open for wholesale subcontracting again.  Another example of plus ça change.  You may have seen last week’s ESFA Update (item 2 – ESFA Update further education: 10 February 2021 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)) which included the line: a previous ESFA “statement regarding subcontracting could have been misconstrued that you should look to increase your subcontracting arrangements. To be clear, the overriding expectation remains that providers should look to reduce subcontracting”.  Well, it’s about that time of year when ITPs start receiving emails from primes or intermediaries saying that they need to get £VeryLargeNumber out of the door before the end of July and would you like to deliver it for us.  Just remember that this is not being encouraged!  We recognise that some ITPs rely heavily on delivering subcontracted programmes and in the past AELP has proposed that it would be better that they could have larger contracts for direct delivery instead.  The present issues around reconciliation need to be resolved and we need to move to much greater clarity on the government’s attitude towards subcontracting in order for providers to plan future delivery with more confidence.

Finally, many members continue to report that they are being frustrated by the cap of 10 new apprentice starts for non-levy paying employers on the apprenticeship service, especially in the current economic situation.  The ESFA is keeping the matter under review and if members have examples to share with us, please email AELP at apprenticeships@aelp.org.uk

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