Skills and funding update for the funded adult education sector

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COVID-19 remains the headline for the moment.

We have had several announcements from the government and the adult education sector representatives thus far and I’m sure more will come. The month of April will clearly bring many further announcements as we go further into the crisis but one of the key announcements happened a few weeks now and was welcomed by the sector. That is that the monitoring of delivery processes has been put on hold in this difficult period, including halting Ofsted inspections and ESFA Audits for now.

Despite the uncertainty there has been some assurances from the powers that be, and in this respect for some skills providers there is some positive news with the release of the Procurement Policy Note 02/20 Supplier relief.

  • This document is the guidance from the government which will result in on-programme payments for AEB, ESF and apprenticeships for all providers based on recent performance.
  • For providers delivering Adult Learner Loans there has been no announcements (yet) about the approach that will be adopted here, but that Is expected to hopefully come soon.

With these updates most providers have a certain level of security for their next few months, albeit the funds will be reconciled with a reconciliation process that’s likely to take place in the new academic year and will be accounted for then.

In other news that may have been overlooked in the last few weeks Apprenticeship achievement rates have fallen although not as much as was expected! The National Achievement Rates showing 66.9% 2017/18 to 64.7% 2018/19 and many people in the sector were celebrating the less than expected reduction. From what we can gather from the data is that the sector is still generally struggling with the introduction of standards with the achievement rate for framework apprenticeships in 2018/19 at 68.7%, in comparison to 46.6% for standards.

Prior to the recent turmoil – the official unemployment rates were low by historical standards and the main issue was “under-employment”, particularly amongst graduates as this was at an all-time high. The focus as identified in the Budget 2020  and again for most people this seems like a distant past, this budget had a focus to support people to improve their skills to level up opportunity across the country and thereby Increasing productivity,  and this depends on improving the skills levels of this generation and the next.

The plans for the government were to facilitate two culture changes: for individuals to be able to train and retrain over the course of their lifetimes; and for employers and the government to increase investment and fill the skills gaps that hold back productivity at a local, regional and national level.

In practical terms the ‘skills progression ladder’ is a focus to be rebalanced towards higher technical qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 as well as ensuring the qualifications at Level 3 and below are there to climb up.

When the facts change then our plan and priorities need to change, we hope the skills ladder ambition hasn’t completely out of the window but certainly there will be some adjustment of priorities as the Department for Work and Pensions revealed last week an alarming record number of people had applied for universal credit benefits. The figures stated that they were 950,000 applications between 16 March, when people were encouraged to work from home, and the end of the month. The department said it would normally expect around 100,000 claims in a two-week period. Some of the more detrimental predictions go far as to say unemployment could rapidly rise to more than 6 million people, around 21 percent of the entire workforce.

In addition, with the business closures predicted to be as much as 1 in 5 in some cases and the falling levels of confidence, many are already predicting a bleak outlook, young people and those in lower-paid roles working in leisure, retail, and hospitality sectors are likely to be impacted the most and will need government focus and priority and in this respect, they will reach out to welfare to work and adult education sector for a substantive amount of the work.

In terms of present issues from a sector perspective there is the concern where employed learners including Apprentices are furloughed which in effect is a leave of absence or placed on unpaid leave, or where the nature of their employment changes and no longer supports their course or apprenticeship. The general guidance from the Association of Employment & Learning Providers (AELP) is for learning providers to continue to support furloughed workers and only resort to using an official break in learning if the learner doesn’t want to undertake any training whilst they are temporarily stood down from work. Hopefully most people will be keen to carry on and make use of this time and see it as an opportunity for them.

For Guidance and information, the Department for Education has launched a new helpline to answer questions about COVID-19 related to education. Staff, parents and young people, more information can be found here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-educational-settings-about-covid-19

In addition, guidance for employees, employers, and businesses on Coronavirus (COVID-19) is as below:

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-for-employees-employers-and-businesses

Moving on, the Department of Education has issued the latest advice pertaining to apprenticeship training providers and End Point Assessment organisations (EPAOs).   It states that in order to support the sector during any disruption, the initial recommendations is that there is a need for everyone (employer, provider, EPAO, Apprentice) to take a reasonable and balanced approach in these situations and to recognise that the health and wellbeing of individuals is a higher priority than performance measures. Good communication between each of these parties is important to the successful delivery of EPA anyway. So, in these circumstances that communication becomes even more important.

Learning providers wherever possible should continue to deliver especially where remote and other such methods are allowable. This includes completing and signing learners as complete where activities can be conducted remotely, with the agreement of the apprentice, employer and provider.

Where there is a will there’s a way, the sector as a whole has stepped up in the last few weeks and there has been impressive stories on LinkedIn and other mediums about providers across the country and how they have reacted and adapted to this “unprecedented “ change.

This period is an opportunity to implement and adjust to new approaches and continue to inspire and engage adults in learning. I can say that first-hand from our organisation that we have looked at practical and pragmatic solutions whilst remaining positive. The digital transformation journey that we were on, like many other providers has been fast-tracked – including where needed delivering learner responsive and learner specific resources to continue with the aim to deliver programmes for all learners.

In addition to offering support for the community and stepping up communication flow with all stakeholders, there has been a concerted effort from many to work together as one and support each other across the sector to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on our team members, learners, employers and our business itself. The words every cloud has a silver lining come to mind.

Safaraz Ali