Every quarter, the Skills Funding Agency releases performance data on Adult Education. The information, known as an SFR (statistical First Release), whilst not definitive, provides a valuable insight into the health of the sector.
I was particularly interested to note that in the first 9 months of the Academic year 2012/2013, there were a total of just over 360,000 Apprenticeship starts. This suggests that for the full academic year, the total number of starts is unlikely to exceed 450,000 and if that proves to be the case, it will represent a fall of about 15% on the previous year and the first time that Apprenticeship starts have fallen since comparable records began 6 years ago. I suspect in fact, since Apprenticeship starts in the final quarter of the year are generally lower than in the first 3 quarters, that the final figures will show a fall nearer 20%
Not surprisingly, these new figures have resulted in a chorus of alarm bells ringing throughout the sector and all sorts of theories are being put forward to explain the sudden decline. Once again, the lack of effective careers advice about Apprenticeships is being raised as a key reason behind the fall but I don’t really buy that. Careers advice didn’t just plummet on 1 August 2012 – it is a perennial issue which we need to fix. So I think we have to look elsewhere
What Was Happening in 2011/12?
To fully understand the problem, I believe we need to look, not at the reasons behind the fall this year, but the reasons behind the huge increases in 2010/11 and 2011/12 when Apprenticeship starts nearly doubled compared with previous years.
As we now know, between 2012 and 2012, certain providers, acting it should be said totally legally, were signing up huge numbers of existing employees, assessing their existing skills, whisking them through Key Skills qualifications which did nothing to raise their English and Maths abilities and completing the programme of “training” in six months. Providers got their funding, employers got some free training and the government could make political hay with the massive increase in starts. The only people who missed out were the “Apprentices” who got a very dubious learning experience.
2012/13 was the year when the gravy train came to a halt as long overdue quality processes were introduced. A focus on the development of new skills for new employees, 12 month minimum timescales and most importantly the introduction of Functional Skills as a real opportunity to give learners the skills to apply their knowledge.
Putting all that together I am not surprised by the fall in starts, in fact I welcome it as evidence that we have moved into a different ballgame where quality rather than quantity is the byword. For far too long, we have been obsessed with “starts” as a measure of the success of the Apprenticeship programme. Instead we should be focusing on completion rates, drop-out rates and most importantly evidence of progression to higher courses and promotion within the workplace.
Of course, if the decline in starts continues into 2013/14, we should be seriously worried. But I am convinced that the current fall is a one-off brought about through the introduction of quality standards which I am sure we will all welcome.
Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills