The Skills Funding Agency has issued a draft of its 2012/13 Funding rules for comment. For those interested in this kind of thing, here is my response:
FEEDBACK ON THE DRAFT FUNDING RULES 2012/13
11 May 2012
This note is provided in response to the request from the Skills Funding Agency (the Agency) for feedback on the new Funding Rules document for 2012/13.
The first thing to say is that this is a massive leap forward from 2011/12 documents which were poorly drafted and internally inconsistent and which failed to distinguish between rules and ‘expectations’. This document is well written and clear in intent and I congratulate those responsible for the drafting.
The second general point is that it is hard to provide comprehensive feedback without sight of the audit evidence requirements. There are several instances where new provisions have been incorporated (in some cases well under the radar!) which may or may not prove onerous depending on the nature and precise form of the evidence which auditors will expect to see. Accordingly, I would like to reserve the right to make further comments on the next draft once the audit material has been incorporated.
I have the following specific comments:
It is not clear whether it is proposed that these mandatory steps extend to the delivery of key/functional skills within apprenticeship frameworks. If so, I suggest that an element of discretion be built in. Skills checks and diagnostic tools are helpful in many cases: however they are time consuming and expensive to administer and there are instances where it is apparent from the start that a learner will not have difficulty in achieving a level 2 in maths or English. This is particularly true in the case of learners aged 21 and over, with academic qualifications which may be out of time to rank as a proxy.
If, therefore, these paragraphs are intended to extend to apprenticeships, I suggest that, in paragraph 35, the words ‘must undertake’ are replaced with ‘must consider and, where appropriate, undertake’. Likewise I suggest that in paragraph 36, the phrase ‘Providers must use up to date assessment tools which are based….’ be replaced with ‘Where assessment tools are used, these must be up to date and based….’
This is an example of a new provision whose impact is difficult to assess in the absence of the audit requirements. It is presumably aimed at the practice of some supermarkets and other large companies ‘rebranding’ large numbers of their existing staff in order to obtain funding for what is, in effect, internal training. However, as drafted, it could seriously compromise other, perfectly legitimate arrangements.
First, restricting funding to individuals undertaking a ‘new or changed’ job role could, if interpreted literally by auditors, rule out those who are undertaking training with a view to achieving a promotion or role change when it is complete.
Secondly, in some sectors (for example early years and childcare, health and social care) it is common practice for employers to recruit staff without the involvement of a training provider and then to approach a training provider to deliver any required or desirable training. At the point of joining the apprenticeship programme, therefore, it is possible to argue that the job role is not strictly a ‘new’ one, as the individual may already have been carrying it out for a period of time.
This situation seems to have been anticipated in the context of Apprenticeship Vacancies (AV), where – in footnote 11 – it is stated that ‘conversions, where staff are already employed by a company, do not need to be posted onto the AV system’. However, it would be useful to make clear – either here or in the audit section – that the training of existing staff is not seen as an illegitimate objective per se.
I have no difficulty with the principle of this paragraph. However, as an accountant, I do not understand what sort of positive demonstration it is possible to give. Most organisations, including training providers, have multiple sources of revenue and expense, making it meaningless to attempt to ‘trace’ any particular expense to a particular source.
Furthermore, in the extreme case of a provider whose only source of income is the Agency, this paragraph as drafted would appear to preclude it from accessing any funding for staff training, as an auditor could always argue that the staff salaries must ultimately have come from Agency funds. I suggest that the second sentence of this paragraph adds nothing and that deleting it would actually make the first sentence stronger.
The example calculation in the box is arithmetically incorrect. To achieve the same number of hours as a 30 hours per week apprenticeship with a 12 month duration, a 20 hours per week apprenticeship would have to be extended by a half to 18 months, not a third to 16 months as stated. The minimum duration in these circumstances should be calculated as (360/h) where h is the number of weekly hours worked.
Paragraphs 77 and 78
These paragraphs are mutually inconsistent. The first states that a departure from 30 hour minimum will only be in exceptional circumstances related to the individual apprentice. The second, however, recognises that certain industries and job roles do not always offer the possibility of a 30 hour week. In my experience this is common in schools, pre-schools, play centres, care homes and can hardly be described as ‘exceptional’. Since the purpose of this rule – clearly set out in the box following paragraph 81 – is to prevent abuse rather than to exclude certain types of worker from apprenticeships, I suggest redrafting paragraph 77.2 as follows:
77.2 ensure that, subject to paragraph 78, apprentices are employed for at least 30 hours per week. Employment for fewer than 16 hours per week is not permitted in any circumstances.
The question of guided learning hours is still widely misunderstood by providers and it would be helpful if – either here or in the audit section – you would repeat the clarification, already provided to me by the CEO of the National Apprenticeship Service, that ‘if a learner completes a qualification within a framework and is awarded the qualification by the AO, then for the purposes of SASE compliance they will have met the qualification glh as stated in the framework regardless of whether they actually undertook the glh assigned to the qualification’. (This is a restatement of section 9(2)(b), Education and Skills Act 2008.)
Why? This seems unnecessarily prescriptive and in particular cannot be applied to schools.
In the box which follows, the wording would be clearer if the phrase ‘short duration’ were added before Apprenticeships.
The syntax here is confusing. In particular the insertion of the words ‘of a 16-18 Apprentice’ has the effect of suggesting that this restriction applies only to the second part of the sentence. Since the paragraph is within a section headed ‘Minimum duration for those apprentices aged 16-18’, it is unnecessary to repeat it and the paragraph would be clearer if it read.
84. Providers must not enter an expected duration of fewer than twelve months under any circumstances. Where an apprenticeship is completed in fewer than twelve months, the achievement element will not be paid.
The box following this paragraph contains a rare example of a return to the woolly drafting of past years. Is this an expectation or a rule? If the former, then it has no place in a document whose stated purpose is to set out mandatory requirements. If the latter, then you need to be more specific about the ‘certain circumstances’ in which it may be broken and how these are to be documented.
I’m sure I recall that, in the past, we have been obliged to include ESF logos and the like on documentation on the grounds that, in some circumstances, apprenticeships are ESF co-funded. That being so, it is not clear from the document whether this section applies to all apprenticeship provision or only to provision which is clearly ESF funded. It would not be acceptable for providers to fall foul of rules which applied to them only as a result of some arcane detail of funding policy, and of which they were unaware.
I have been trying for several weeks, without success, to get a straight answer from the Agency to the question of the consequences of non-compliance with this paragraph. Clearly it is not within a prime contractor’s power to ensure that subcontractors apply to join, or are accepted onto, the Register. If a subcontractor who is required to be registered is not registered, is the prime contractor still allowed to deal with them and if so, for how long and on what terms?