"Mind the gap" and the brave new(ish) world of apprenticeship eligibility

By Jonathan Bourne, Managing Director, Damar Training

Even though it’s nearly two years since the launch of the Apprenticeship Levy and the widespread roll-out of new apprenticeships standards, the question of who is and who isn’t eligible to undertake an apprenticeship in still causing problems in the sector. Interestingly, these link to many of the other challenges that regulators, employers and providers are facing, particularly about the minimum 20% off-the-job training requirement and programme lengths.

We’ve spent a lot of time at Damar getting to grips with the new rules and I thought it would be interesting to share a few thoughts.

“Mind the gap” isn’t just about taking care when getting off the train, it sits at the heart of whether a prospective apprentice is eligible. Let me explain…

The old world of apprenticeship eligibility was very mechanical. If a prospective apprentice had prior qualifications higher than A level they were usually ineligible. For those with lower level qualifications only, it was a case of seeing whether these overlapped significantly with the apprenticeship. If they did, candidates were ineligible; if not, fine to proceed. I simplify, but that was about it.

Now it’s about the gap (more precisely, the competency gap) between…

The skills, knowledge and behaviours at the outset; and

The skills, knowledge and behaviours required of the apprenticeship standard.

So far so good, but how big does the gap need to be? That’s where 20% off-the-job and the twelve-month minimum period come in. If the minimum requirement is for the apprentice to spend 20% of their working week learning off the job and the minimum duration is twelve months then, logically, the minimum skills gap must be one that needs at least that amount of off-the-job learning to fill. Working hours vary of course but if we assume 30 hours per week and 28 days paid holiday a year, that’s at least 280 hours of learning off-the-job.

It’s easy to measure the apprentice’s end-point (that’s the task of the End Point Assessment Organisation) but how to measure their starting point? This the tricky bit and one that we’ve been working hard on. Part of this has been helping our training colleagues and employers to improve the depth of the conversations that were being had at the outset. To support these, we have recently developed a suite of apprenticeship-specific questionnaires. These help to facilitate a conversation that drills down into individuals’ skills, knowledge and behaviours and factor in prior qualifications and experience. They give us an agreed position on the starting point and, importantly, something we can go back to during the apprenticeship to measure progress.

Does the new approach to eligibility mean that more or fewer people are eligible? Early signs are that it makes little difference to numbers overall. It does mean that apprentices are better suited to their programmes but challenges can arise. A couple of examples…

We recently had a conversation with a prospective legal apprentice. He had a previous legal qualification that, on the face of it, overlapped with the apprenticeship. We spent an hour or so with the candidate and his manager, discussing the previous training, his experience and the requirements of the proposed standard. It soon became clear that the knowledge gained in the other qualification was superficial and that there was a significant competency gap, not just in terms of knowledge, but also the apprentice’s skills and behaviours. The discussion (we made a detailed written note of course) not only demonstrated eligibility but also helped us tailor the training plan around the needs of the individual and agree objectives with the employer. In the old world, it is likely that this candidate would have been treated as ineligible.

A more difficult situation was that of a young apprentice whose employer wished to enrol her on a level two apprenticeship standard. She had done several Saturday and part-time jobs whilst at college, had excellent GCSEs and was well-suited for the position. However, on assessing her knowledge, skills and behaviours, it was clear that she didn’t need a year-long training programme and a day a week off-the-job to meet the standard required. In the old world she was eligible, in the new world she is not.

The second example is hypothetical but raises some interesting questions about access to apprenticeships. Is public money better spent on supporting a new entrant to the labour market than an employee who is secure at work but needs to upskill?

Both examples underline the importance of really good support from the training provider at the outset. Without this, there is a real risk that expectations are raised or new apprentices recruited, only to find that the apprentice is ineligible for the standard the employer has chosen.

Most school and college leavers do turn out to be eligible of course and so we are finding that initial assessment of the skills gap is of particular importance with existing employees keen to undertake an apprenticeship. Not only does it prove eligibility, it also ensures that everyone’s expectations are aligned. Too often in the past, existing employees have signed up to an apprenticeship thinking that it’s a “course” that will help them brush up on a few skills and get a certificate and are then surprised by the amount of work involved. Alternatively, they may have been enrolled on an apprenticeship only to find that they already have most of the knowledge, skills and behaviours. This is particularly important at large employers where, understandably, there is a drive to use Levy funds before they expire. Whether the apprentice is an existing or a new employee, it also means that the employer and the apprentice are fully bought in to the programme objectives.

Measuring the size of the gap also helps employers with conversations about how much apprenticeships should cost. If the normal duration of an apprenticeship (indicative lengths are set out in the standards) is 24 months but it is clear that an apprentice can fill their skills gap in 15 months then the price, ordinarily, should come down from the provider’s usual cost (which may be more or less than the funding cap). Alternatively, if the gap is bigger the price may need to be higher.

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