The Association of Employment and Learning Providers is taking legal advice over the omission of support for apprentices being trained at levy-paying employers.
It also accused the Department for Education (DfE) of using the Covid-19 pandemic as a way of reducing the number of independent training providers operating in the apprenticeship market.
Until last Friday (24 April), when fresh guidance was issued by the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the DfE was, said the AELP, ignoring Cabinet Office guidelines that required all government departments to pay all of their contracted suppliers up to the end of June.
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However, on Friday, the DfE conceded it would honour Cabinet Office guidelines – but only in respect of non-levy-paying training suppliers. This, said the AELP, means that nearly two-thirds of providers (that included colleges and universities) won’t be paid. It stated: “If you are a provider and delivering apprenticeships for levy payers you won’t get paid.”
AELP chief executive Mark Dawe said Friday’s update by the government was a step in the right direction, “but we’re not even halfway there if this is about protecting the livelihoods of existing apprentices and disadvantaged young people on traineeships and study programmes”.
He said that the package did not offer financial support for independent training providers and colleges training for over half of the 628,000 apprentices who were on an apprenticeship programme when the pandemic started. “This is because the Department for Education is claiming that the Cabinet Office supplier relief guidance doesn’t apply in respect of apprentices who are employed by organisations paying the apprenticeship levy.”
Dawes said the organisation’s initial legal advice was that the DfE’s claim was discriminatory against the apprentices outside the scope of today’s package and there were strong grounds for a challenge
He added that AELP shouldn’t have to be going down this route: “The adversely affected apprentices are innocent parties in all this and it shouldn’t matter where they are doing their training if it means that their programmes can continue uninterrupted. Similarly, levy-paying employers shouldn’t be forced to change their chosen training provider in this critical period if the lack of support means that the provider gets into financial difficulty.”
According to the AELP, the DfE should provide across-the-board support for all apprenticeships, traineeships and study programmes and can do this without the need for any bailouts from the Treasury, because the programme budgets for 2020-21 are already in the department’s coffers waiting to be used in accordance with the Cabinet Office guidelines.
Dawes added: “While we don’t have an issue with the specific quality thresholds included in today’s package, the approach so far has reinforced the suspicions of AELP members that the DfE was originally seeking to use the pandemic as an excuse to reduce through a lack of financial support the number of independent training providers operating in the apprenticeship market. This belief is related to the well-documented oversubscribed demands on the levy budget.”
“We hope the House of Commons Education Committee will explore this in its Covid-19 impact inquiry. Sadly a certain amount of trust has been lost between providers and the government, and lessons need to be learnt for the future.”
Gillian Keegan, apprenticeships and skills minister, said the DfE recognised being faced by the sector: “We’ve been encouraging as many providers as possible to shift their training offer online so their students can continue their studies and so that providers are paid as normal. The sector have been doing a really brilliant job, as evidenced by the AELP’s recent survey that shows that 81% of apprentices have been able to continue their studies remotely.
“We recognise the significant challenge continuing to deliver training at this time presents. In addition to the HMT support available to all businesses, and the flexibilities we have already introduced to support providers and their students during the Covid-19 outbreak, our Provider Relief Scheme will offer additional financial support so we can continue to deliver the best education and training possible. I would urge all eligible providers to apply.”