Education Bill

Memorandum submitted by the Association of Learners Providers (E 09)

As you may know, the Association of Learning Providers (ALP) represents vocational learning providers who train the large majority of apprentices in England and provide other forms of education and training support for school-leavers and unemployed young people.

We are pleased that the second reading of the Education Bill is taking place during Apprenticeship Week and that the week will end with the House of Commons debating a private member’s bill requiring large public sector contract winners to commit themselves to offering apprenticeship places as part of the contract’s conditions.

Before commenting on specific provisions in the Bill, I should underline ALP’s support for the government’s commitment to growing apprenticeship provision for both young people and adults. Providers are on track to deliver the extra 50,000 places which ministers wanted by the end of March and we believe that these are vital to help bring about a sustained economic recovery. We are also pleased that the coalition government’s approach to skills has continued to uphold the Leitch principles of a demand-led system driven by the choices of employers and learners.

This bill and the white paper which preceded it recognise that independent providers from the private and third sectors have a vital role to play in 14-19 provision. ALP members are already active in alternative education and young apprenticeships at the younger end of this age range, while they are also major providers of Foundation Learning and 16-18 apprenticeships.

On the Bill itself, we have specific comments on the following:

Clause 27 – Careers guidance in schools in England

ALP was at the forefront of the campaign to get the never implemented section 250 into the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 which would have required secondary schools in England to inform all students about apprenticeships as one of their possible post-GCSE options. In a nutshell, our argument was that the impact of expanding apprenticeship places would be diminished if young people were not being informed of their availability, which is still the case in many schools, particularly those with sixth forms where there is a vested interested in encouraging students to stay on even if it is not necessarily in their best interest to do so.

We never let go of the issue when we saw that implementation of section 250 was not forthcoming and therefore it is greatly encouraging that the government has included a similar provision (clause 27) in the Education Bill which according to the explanatory notes will require schools to use an independent and impartial advisory service to give all registered pupils information on options available in respect of 16 to 18 education or training, including apprenticeships.

ALP warmly welcomes this provision, but it would be helpful to receive assurances from ministers that measures will be in place to ensure that schools comply with the new requirements. For example, will schools have to provide evidence to their local authorities that they are using an independent and impartial Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) service which is accessible to all registered pupils? What will be the position for academies and free schools outside local authority control? In its new slimmed down role, will Ofsted be checking on the level of compliance?

The Skills Minister, John Hayes, announced before Christmas that the government was intent on introducing an all-age IAG service for England to mirror those already established in the devolved administrations. Again, this would be warmly welcomed by ALP members and it would be helpful to know how the plans for this are proceeding.

Clause 62 – Abolition of the Young People’s Learning Agency

ALP feels that the abolition of the YPLA offers an opportunity for the coalition government to pursue a cross-departmental approach to the commissioning of employment placement and skills training services in England which presently functions under the three different departments – the DfE, BIS and DWP. There are many independent providers and colleges which are delivering for all three and the end-result is an over-bureaucratic and often ‘silo-ed’ picture which drains public money from the frontline and leads to duplication of service delivery. It certainly does not help the near 1 million young people who are now looking for work.

The Welsh Assembly Government integrated some of its employment and skills provision sometime ago, although the DWP still operates welfare-to-work programmes in the Principality. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has also called for ‘single commissioning points’ for providers across the UK. Nevertheless Whitehall departments continue to guard their territories fiercely and while we accept that each one will want to safeguard priorities in their sponsored programmes, the fact is that they are looking to provide our young people and adults with ultimately the same objective, which is sustainable employment. This is encouraging, as is the increasing recognition that skills training is often essential to obtain and hold on to a new job.

ALP believes that a single procurement agency under the three departments for non-schools 16-18 provision, adult skills and employment placement is the solution which will cut costs and remove duplication. We have put forward this proposition to ministers in the past and it would be interesting to know that in the quest in ‘delivering more for less’, whether this will be considered seriously as an option during this Parliament.

Clause 65 – The apprenticeship offer

The 2009 Act confirmed, rightly in our view, that apprenticeships require a contract of employment for the young person or adult. This recognises that much of the high quality learning in an apprenticeship takes place on the job at work. We welcome therefore the new bill’s reaffirmation that this should remain unchanged. Completion rates for apprenticeships are over 70% which places the UK among Europe’s best performers and it is important that the apprenticeship brand is not sullied by non work-based training programmes of lesser quality that purport to be apprenticeships.

Progression to apprenticeships – real concerns emerging

While ALP strongly supports legislation defining the apprenticeship offer which protects the quality of learning and its reputation with employers and learners, it is vital that there are pathways to enable young people and adults to progress on to apprenticeships, especially if the learner has come from a disadvantaged background.

Last autumn, ALP submitted to ministers proposals for a flexible approach to pre-apprenticeship provision and these have been positively received. One route to a full apprenticeship is via the DfE-funded Foundation Learning which is in its first year of operation. ALP members are expressing a wide range of concerns about the current arrangements, especially the impact on those vulnerable young people previously supported by the Entry to Employment (e2e) programme.

Serious concerns have been raised about the combined effects of the funding, structure and content of the Foundation Learning offer which, particularly when combined with other factors such as referral flows from Connexions and recent decisions on learner support arrangements, are now bearing down heavily on recruitment, retention and achievement. This makes it not only unviable to run for many providers but in many respects inherently unsuitable for very many of the ex-e2e cohort. In our view, e2e was an effective option which allowed many in the NEET group to secure a job in which they could then access learning or start an apprenticeship that resulted in a qualification.

ALP anticipated and raised these issues at the time that Foundation Learning was being designed. It is therefore disappointing that we have now had to go back to the DfE and YPLA to raise them again on behalf of our members. A positive response is needed if we wish to see as many young people as adults taking up the expanded number of apprenticeships places.

EMA replacement needs to support work-based learners as well

Much of the debate and press coverage surrounding the ending of the Education Maintenance Allowance has understandably focused on college and sixth form students. But the government should also recognise the importance of financial support for many of the young people that work based learning providers have on their programmes, such as e2e. These ex-Neets often come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, including broken homes. In fact two years ago, ALP successfully lobbied for the removal of the requirement that an EMA application form should require the signature of a parent or guardian because our members were helping young people in towns hundreds of miles from home in cases where contact with parents had broken down. It is therefore vital that the replacement support scheme continues to support these young people in their efforts to secure a meaningful and fruitful future.

February 2011