MATs miss apprenticeship targets requirement, but DfE softens stance

The Department for Education looks to have relaxed the requirement for public bodies to publish their progress towards the 2.3 per cent apprenticeship target, claiming it is merely “good practice”.

It comes after an investigation by sister title FE Week found multi-academy trusts had failed to meet a new government requirement to publicise what percentage of their staff had started an apprenticeship in 2019-20 on their websites.

Since the apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017, public sector bodies with 250 or more staff in England have had a target to employ an average of at least 2.3 per cent of their staff as new apprentice starts over the period of April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2021.

Under statutory guidance, the bodies must report their annual progress to government and make the information “easily accessible to the public”, for example, on their website. The data for how many apprentices start at each body is due on September 30 each year.

Chair of the education select committee Robert Halfon, who implemented the target when he was skills minister, called on public bodies to be “wholly transparent” and to comply with the regulations.

Where they do not, the Department for Education should hold them “fully accountable”, he demanded.

However, representative bodies have called on the government to ease off enforcing the rule owing to the pressures the public sector is facing from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite its own rules, the Department for Education said that while public bodies “must” report the data to central government so that overall performance against the target can be published, it was simply “good practice” for the bodies to publish their own data on their website.

Recognising the challenges organisations are facing this year, the department also said that where data is submitted after September 30, “we will endeavour to take account of it when we publish annual performance data in November”.

Out of the 20 largest academy trusts in England, FE Week could only find the data for one trust in the first week of October.

United Learning, the largest multi-academy trust, was one of those not complying with the DfE’s rules. A spokesperson said the trust, run by former Department for Education director general Sir Jon Coles, makes the information available “on request” and reports the data annually to the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, Geoff Barton, said he imagines MATs have not hit the deadline as “they are having to spin so many plates at the moment to manage Covid safety measures, keep their schools open, and reintegrate children back into the classroom”.

He would expect the government to be conscious of these “huge pressures”, and called on the DfE, which enforces the data publication rules, “not to insist upon fairly arcane accountability measures being met to the letter”.

The one trust that did publish its data, Delta Academies Trust, had a workforce of 3,208 as of March 31, 2020 and 0.56 per cent of those were apprentices. A spokesperson said that while they were able to publish the data on time, this “clearly continues to be an exceptionally busy period for everyone working in schools” so it was “inevitable” that some work would be delayed.

The FE Week investigation also found councils and hospital trusts were not following the rules.