In this article, first published by FE News, Lou Doyle asks: “Is the Perfect Storm of Apprenticeships Brewing?”
Apprenticeship providers are facing the challenge of fewer apprenticeship starts and more early leavers. By leveraging the right quality assurance practices, leaders can safeguard both quality and performance.
Life is tough for apprenticeship providers these days. You face challenges from all sides navigating the delicate balance between government-funded education and employer investment in their time and for some, money. Navigating the waves of securing quality whilst being buffeted by the winds of external factors can be hard.
Two specific challenges pose a threat to apprenticeship quality moving into 23/24, increasing the risk of falling short on ESFA accountability measures and potentially an uncomfortable Ofsted inspection.
Challenge 1: Decrease in Apprenticeship Numbers
The drop in intermediate and advanced apprenticeships is concerning. These apprenticeships serve as a crucial pipeline for bringing fresh talent into organisations. I suspect it won’t be too long before policy interventions seek to address the use of levy spend, regardless of the government in power. For now, we’re reliant on an upturn in either demand from employers or interest from potential apprentices, depending on which sector you operate in.
Why does this drop affect quality? When leaders see a decline in recruitment, understandable alarm bells ring. Financial difficulties might loom as targets become harder to meet. As a result, there could be additional pressure placed on business development and apprentice recruitment teams to create and fill vacancies. The danger lies in compromising the “right apprentice, right programme” principle, placing apprentices on unsuitable programmes for short-term gains that will hurt both finances and quality in the long run.
Challenge 2: Early Departure of Apprentices
We’re falling short of our desired retention rates, with too many apprentices leaving their programmes prematurely. The Department for Education (DfE) sets an achievement rate target of 67%, which includes retention rates in its calculation. In the 2021-2022 period, we achieved a 51% achievement rate for apprenticeship standards. There were certainly mitigating factors which we are all aware of, however, it would be a demonstration of poor leadership and governance to assume there is nothing we could potentially do differently going forward.
To identify necessary changes, it is helpful, rather than focusing on 21/22, to examine the leavers’ rates for 2022-2023 as part of the self-assessment process. Collaborative self-assessment involving feedback from teams and individuals responsible for recruiting both new employers and apprentices is vital to inform learning.
Consider the two challenges alongside each other:
- Pressure to recruit more apprentices.
- Pressure to improve apprenticeship completion rates within the agreed timeframe
If we aren’t mindful of it, and consciously take action to avoid it, it’s reasonable to predict that the former challenge may negatively impact the latter this coming year, exacerbating and drawing out the completion rate issue from 21/22.
Here are four straightforward actions for leaders to consider as we move towards the new academic year:
- Set objectives and results for 23/24 based on a step change towards 67%+ if the provision falls below the benchmark. Avoid a goal that is limited to simply avoiding triggering action by the ESFA based on the risk levels in the accountability framework. If you’re closer to 67%, aim to go beyond it. It’s a minimum standard, not a moonshot aspiration.
- Be clear on the breakdown of withdrawals in 21/22 and 22/23, understanding which were a) outside of your control, b) can be influenced and c) can be controlled. Your QIP is the vehicle to capture how you wish to enact the changes for b and c. Set your impact measures based on the breakdown.
- Be mindful of the unintended consequences of placing too much focus on recruitment over retention in apprenticeships. You get what you measure in business development.
- Keep a keen eye on progress reviews to ensure apprentices aren’t being retained on a programme that isn’t right for them or their employer. Ultimately, it will damage your reputation, and the motivation of your staff, apprentices and employers. It also risks the planned end date going out of the window.