With a month to go the introduction of the levy and other changes to the funding of apprenticeships as well as the ongoing transition from frameworks to standards, it is a good time to review your organisation's state of preparedness so that you can take advantage of the opportunities provided by these changes.
At the same time it is critical that if you already provide apprenticeships, whether frameworks or standards, it is 'business as usual', and that the quality of their experience and outcomes is maintained.
So what are the key areas that training providers should have reviewed and be in the process of checking to make sure they are in a good position to make the most of the reforms?
It is critical that your organisation has a clear vision and strategy for apprenticeships, and that this understood and supported not only by your leaders and managers, but also by everyone in your organisation that impacts on the quality of apprenticeships. I know that in some training providers, including colleges, this has also meant the establishment of an apprenticeship board or working party to make sure that there is a coherent plan to implement the changes effectively. This needs to be communicated not only internally but also externally to employers, trainees, parents and other stakeholders. The strategy must take account of a realistic appraisal of the opportunities and threats posed by the reforms, and how your organisation's capabilities can respond to these. Key decisions should be made about which apprenticeships, at what levels and at what scale you will offer, and the resources you will need to invest in to provide high quality returns for employers and apprentices. The process of applying for the RoATP and the first procurement of provision for non- levy paying employers has provided us with an opportunity to establish our state of preparedness, and so have some of the checklists and training materials used to support the process.
The development of your organisation' apprenticeship strategy needs a thorough review of your existing provision, if you are already an apprenticeship provider, in terms of the numbers of apprentices, the range of frameworks and standards offered, the range and types of employers, and most importantly the quality and viability of your offer. It is important to model your existing offer once the new funding rates are introduced for new starts after 1st May, and to make necessary changes to the offer, especially when standards become available. This may provide the opportunity to either reduce or increase the range and scale of apprenticeships to better meet the needs of the market, as well as improve your earnings from apprenticeships. Crucially, the quality of your offer in terms of overall and timely achievements as well minimum standards will require a more radical response, and in some cases, may lead to withdrawal of some provision.
The reforms do mean very significant changes in not only the apprenticeship market with the levy but also in the curriculum with the introduction of new standards, so at all levels in your organisation, a regular appraisal of opportunities and threats must be undertaken. The increase in government funding for apprenticeships, the introduction of higher apprenticeships, increased funding for STEM, greater public awareness of apprenticeships, provide all of us with opportunities to grow apprenticeships, and more locally, you may be able to take advantage of economic growth opportunities and LEP priorities, as well as the poor performance of a competitor provider. But there are significant threats from new entrants to the market, uncertainty over responses from employers, as well uncertainty over the future state of the economy.
So what sorts of operational issues should be addressed in the run up to May? In addition to the 'root and branch' review of your offer mentioned earlier, you need to consider the marketing of your offer and employer engagement strategy, pricing and payments arrangements, contractual and regulatory issues, information and data requirements, and how to develop your workforce to make the most of the new opportunities.
As part of your marketing and employer engagement strategy it will be necessary to establish a clear position in the market for your offer, and this may involve either promoting your brand around the values that underpin your new offer, or if, you are a new entrant or have merged with another provider then building a new brand. You can then focus on getting positive messages out to the market, through newsletters and the press, your website, mail shots, employer events, site visits and other forms of business to business and to customer communications. It may be possible to widen your offer by working with key partners, e.g. LEPs and Chambers of Commerce. Most critically, if you already provide for EFA funded 16-18 year olds, or AEB funded adult learners, you can promote opportunities for progression to apprenticeships through your internal communication channels, and to prospective employers, e.g. through Traineeships. Making effective use the Apprenticeship Service will also support the messages you are trying to get out to the market, including Employer Choices surveys which will highlight the quality of your customer experience. Putting yourselves in the shoes of the employers who have to pick through the different offerings and identify the provider that best meets their needs, will give you an insight into how they make those decisions, e.g. proven track record, ability to scale up, help with talent find, delivery methodology. Additionally, if know your market and its motivations, you will better engage with it, e.g. small businesses who typically recruit 16-18 apprentices at level 2, of whom over 60% are retained after the apprenticeship ends.
With a clarity about the offer you are making and how best to market it, you should then focus on your pricing strategy based on the new funding bands for frameworks and standards. All existing apprenticeship have been placed into one of 15 bands and you will negotiate prices using these bands for the training and assessment you provide to the employer. It is critical that providers emphasise the importance of the quality of the apprenticeship they offer and value added to the employer, and if necessary start with the maximum band value in the negotiation. Added value propositions not related to the price agreed may help with the deal, e.g. bespoke training, talent find. From a financial point of view your contracts with employers must have well defined payments schedules, e.g. how the 80% apprenticeship instalments and completion payments will be paid, and also details of the payment mechanism, e.g. direct debits or BACs. With respect to employer-provider contracts, the AELP have already provided members with model contracts for levy paying employers which can be adapted for non-levy paying employers.
This takes us into the area of compliance with funding regulations and rules, and with audit requirements. Providers will need to have clear processes and procedures for new starts, and much of this will be contained in the new evidence packs. The latest versions of the funding rules and guidance need to be shared and understood by relevant staff, e.g. financial inducements to employers, 20% off-the-job training. Changes to the ILR will need to be incorporated and also the evidence of activity and completions for audit. Workplace tutors and assessors will need to be reminded of the timeliness of paperwork for payments and for apprentice progress reporting. Hopefully, most providers have a detailed checklist of these administrative changes and are working through them in advance of May. Most importantly we have to assume that the Apprenticeship Service data and payments system will work effectively to ensure that providers will get paid and be able to monitor effectively.
Throughout all the actions that providers should take to prepare effectively for the reforms, a constant regard to the quality assurance of apprenticeships must be ensured, and where necessary actions to improve quality. Ofsted and the inspection regime will still be there and providers must ensure that no apprentices lose out during the changes. So, the last area of focus is on how providers are developing their workforce, and giving them the knowledge and skills to make the most of the opportunities. In addition to training for curriculum staff, for tutors, teachers and assessors, it is essential that administrative and finance staff are also trained. The training should not only be on the changes to funding arrangements but also on the nature of programmes, standards and end- point assessment. Sales staff will need to be informed of the new markets, new products and how they can impact on decisions by employers. More significantly the role of the assessor should be redesigned as a workplace tutor, with more emphasis on teaching and learning, delivering English and maths, supporting apprentices with learning needs. These all have important implications for pay and conditions, as well as the culture of your organisation.
The Apprenticeship reforms are one of the most significant changes in post-16 education and training in England in the last 30 years. So, it is critical that your organisation has a clear strategy and detailed operational plans to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the reforms. Use this as an opportunity to review the fundamentals of your apprenticeship offer, and to change and improve that offer to better meet the changing needs of the economy, employers and learners and the wider community.
Failure to do so, or ‘eyes wide shut’ could have very serious impacts on your organisation’s future viability!