Workplace training providers in England have accused the government of preventing an estimated 62,000 apprentices from taking up full-time jobs by refusing to relax the rules for the maths and English tests needed to qualify.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers, the industry trade body, said the Department for Education has failed to act despite repeated warnings that restrictions imposed during pandemic were causing a logjam, with employers suffering skills shortages as a result.
Apprentices are unable to sit their final tests because the government has refused to relax the policy that they should be examined at their place of work by external invigilators, who are prevented from attending because of coronavirus restrictions.
“AELP has been lobbying the skills minister Gillian Keegan for months on this issue,” managing director Jane Hickie said. “She acknowledges there is an issue now but we still haven’t arrived at a solution. If we had been talking about GCSEs and A levels, action would have been taken.”
The trade body estimate of the backlog, based on a survey of its 600 members, is almost four times higher than the latest official government data, which the FT obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
The DfE put the number of apprenticeships “past their end date” in November at 16,400 but said not all of these were because of trainees being unable to complete their maths and English tests, known as functional skill qualification assessments or FSQs.
It said it had responded to the problem with a number of measures, including extending the window in which apprentices could sit the test and suspending some requirements. “Where functional skills qualification assessments have been disrupted we introduced several flexibilities to relieve some of the immediate time pressures including extending the dates for legacy FSQs until 31 July,” the DfE said in a statement.
Ms Hickie said she was “staggered” that the government was still insisting on workplace testing when they are either closed or external visitors, such as invigilators, are not allowed in, adding: “Does it listen to the chief medical officer?”
The AELP and other education bodies have offered alternatives to clear the apprentice backlog, including assessments similar to those allowed for GCSE and A level students last year.
City & Guilds, which provides vocational assessment and accreditation for apprenticeships, is currently running trials for remote testing and has recently opened three testing centres in London, Birmingham and Bristol.
David Phillips, City & Guilds managing director, said that despite efforts by the further education sector to work with the government and regulator the backlog was continuing to grow. “Despite all of these interventions, tens of thousands of learners have been unable to complete their functional skills qualifications since the pandemic began, with this number increasing all the time.”
Employers have complained of skills shortages as a result of being unable to release apprentices into jobs unsupervised because they have not completed their training.
Sam Morris, the learning and development manager at Home from Home Care, a care home network for adults with learning difficulties based in Lincolnshire, said the company has 63 apprentices on a payroll of about 400.
These trainees range from people training to be care workers to those looking to move up to supervisor roles. About 30 per cent of them need to complete their maths and English tests.
“It is inhibiting their progress,” Mr Morris said. “Testing maths and English skills is not something you can do remotely. You need somebody looking you in the eye.”
He added that without more trained staff, the company’s plans to expand its operations have been held back.