This blog was kindly contributed by Laura Burley, Apprenticeships Ambassador at The Open University.
For those universities that have taken the strategic decision to support the apprenticeship agenda in England, there is much to get to grips with: the development of new practice-based programmes: Ofsted for higher apprenticeships; new agencies; new ways of data collection and reporting; and of course, an on-going three-way relationship between the apprentice, employer and provider. And there is much to celebrate too. As a recent UUK report states “Since the introduction of degree apprenticeships in England, universities and employers have enthusiastically embraced this new and exciting opportunity to both supercharge skills development and transform partnerships and collaboration.”
Over two years into the new apprenticeship funding and regulatory system in England, there are still some policy tweaks that are required. At The Open University (OU) where we now have over 1800 higher and degree apprentices on programme in England, we believe this includes changes to better support apprentices with declared disabilities. That’s why we recently published the Access to Apprenticeships report, a survey of over 700 employers in England. The report looks at how effectively our current skills system supports employers to recruit and develop people with physical impairments, mental health conditions and learning difficulties and how employers would like to improve the system in England.
A diverse and skilled workforce
At the heart of creating a diverse skilled workforce is having a skills system that supports everybody to thrive and develop no matter what background they come from, or which barriers they may face.
Apprenticeships could be one of many pathways for people with disabilities to access work and develop skills. Indeed, they could be a great way to help support the UK Government’s ambition to close the disability employment gap. Worryingly, however, official statistics would suggest that there remains a gap in employment between those with declared disabilities and those without. Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that in 2018/19, 12.3 per cent of individuals starting an apprenticeship in England declared a Learning Difficulty or Disability (LDD). Although the proportion has increased slightly each year from 7.7 per cent in 2011/12, this still only represents just over half of the total proportion of people with disabilities in the UK – almost one in five (19.5 per cent) of the working age population.
Encouragingly, the OU’s Access to Apprenticeship report showed both a strong desire to increase apprenticeship recruitment across both public and private sector employers and a focus on hiring more apprentices with a declared disability. Over a third of employers told us they had started to recruit individuals proactively with a disability over the past three years.
The employers we surveyed did, however, highlight some significant barriers to meeting their ambitions including a lack of knowledge around the support available to them and insufficient financial and human resources to provide any extra support needed to recruit and develop individuals with a disability. This is particularly the case with SMEs.
The survey also revealed that employers are looking to their providers for support. This ranges from simple advice and guidance through to help with navigating the various sources of funding available. Often, however, these providers are themselves unclear on the eligibility criteria and unsure how to access the funding.
The latter barrier was highlighted in the DfE’s own report that it commissioned via the Learning and Work Institute in 2018 which found around a number of providers interviewed did not claim Additional Learning Support for their apprentices as they were unsure of the eligibility criteria and or what evidence would be acceptable to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). Little appears to have been done to date to fix this issue.
We would therefore urge the Department to see how it can simplify the eligibility criteria for additional funding support and do more to positively encourage providers to draw upon it. Shouldn’t every apprentice have a thorough assessment of their needs from the very outset and any additional support put in place quickly and easily? The OU recommends that the DfE looks at how funding and funding criteria can be simplified and floats the idea of a ‘top-up allowance’ – drawn from the existing Additional Learning Support funding – to cover both assessment and making the adjustments that will support learning throughout the apprenticeship.
The readiness of leaders and operational teams to support apprentices with disabilities was also cited as a barrier with many employers feeling that their staff were ill-equipped and not sufficiently trained to support individual needs. We know that many large employers are increasingly looking for support from university partners in this area. This support ranges from how to make adjustments to learning through to training and preparation of their staff in how to support apprentices with disabilities.
Whilst the challenge is significant, higher education Institutions such as the OU, with 50 years of experience supporting students with disabilities, are well placed to be able to step up and meet it. Businesses are recognising that nurturing a fully diverse workplace reaps so many benefits for the organisation as well as the individual. It is our job to support that. Developing clear support propositions for employers will help cement long-term relationships and help them meet their future talent needs.
For more information on the OU’s Access to Apprenticeships report, please contact Laura Burley, Apprenticeships Ambassador.