In a week when the government reacts positively to a pilot scheme to lower literacy and numeracy levels for apprentices, I ask, is this the best long-term plan?

This week (Nov 2023), FE Week reported on the success of a pilot to flex functional skills minimum requirements to entry level 3 for apprentices with learning difficulties who don’t hold education and health care plans (EHCPs)

They reported that the  DfE revealed that since 2017 only 1,420 out of over 1.7 million apprentices (just 0.08 per cent) have used the existing flexibility to lower the required completion level where learning difficulties exist. Personally, I wasn’t aware that this flexibility existed. It’s considered that this figure is so low because in fact many individuals with SEN are actually struggling to even obtain an EHCP to enable them to gain this flexibility. Furthermore, some EHCPs do not refer to the impact on maths ad English.

FE Week also raises the uncomfortable issue about those who do and do not gain EHCPs due to financial issues. This is NOT a case of you get what you pay for. However, there is clearly a divide in being able to finance obtaining independent reports where necessary to provide further evidence of a learning need.  Some families need to fund advice services to ensure the correct information is being provided and the battle which often ensues with the LA, often not following their own procedures and poorly advising parents. Often reports from professionals involved in a child’s education are required to provide a more comprehensive evaluation of their need. Various LAs have their strengths and weakness when dealing with the EHCP application and the annual review process (once an EHCP has been achieved) and it’s often a postcode lottery gaining an EHCP and the correct provision.  Often EHCPs can be poorly written and don’t reflect the individual’s needs with specific details. The recommendations and in-depth completion of section F can also be ambiguous or not specific enough to ensure the correct outcome is achieved.

Assistive Technology

The skills minister, Rober Halfon MP considers the pilot of reducing the literacy and numeracy level for apprenticeships as  a positive move. FE Week raises the question why is a Level 1 in maths or English  a  requirement which is still being upheld, if it makes no difference to the value of the apprenticeship. I would agree in many ways, the individuals leaving education to pursue an apprenticeship often have the skills set to be successful on a vocational course. However, they may well continue to require a significant level of support in maths and English to be able to complete the literacy or numeracy side of the course.  This considered, there have been significant changes in the assistive technology world that can very much aid independent learning.

Employers and myths about SEN

Many years ago, at the start of my career, in my role as a researcher for a European Union funded project into skills in my local area revealed that many employers felt that the basic skills of literacy and numeracy of prospective employees were not at an acceptable level to offer employment. Therefore, although the government may consider it’s acceptable to lower the expected literacy and numeracy levels we must also consider the employer’s perspective.  If on exit, individuals do not have a specific standard of literacy and numeracy, will local and small companies have an understanding of SEN and how to support individuals in the workplace, do small enterprises (SMEs) have the capacity to support individuals, even if they have an understanding.  We do have the government funding of  Access to Work, however not many employers even know of its existence. Furthermore, individuals need to feel confident to approach their employer, advocate for themselves and to ask the employer to assist in the application process. This often means disclosing difficulties that they may not be happy to discuss. There is so much more that needs to be done to still dispel the myths of SEN within the workplace.

Getting to the root cause

As a dyslexia specialist and individual who is passionate about ensuring every person has the basic right to leave school with a literacy and numeracy level,  which can help them make informed choices, read and access health and financial information, complete daily tasks and independent living which involves literacy and numeracy and have the choice about education and employment,  I ask, why are we not actually considering more funding at the base of the problem? Why is the government not doing more to identify individuals with SEN, identify them early, train staff to deliver SEN specific programmes to support literacy and numeracy from early years and not forcing families into the long and arduous battle of fighting for an EHCP, gaining reports and the constant battle of annual reviews to maintain provisions or amend provision. In addition to this, we must consider the mental health impact this has on the individual who is often traumatised by the experience and often it’s too late to gain their trust and build their confidence in later life.

The FE Week states “There is no apparent inherent advantage in the apprenticeship having English and maths qualifications as an exit requirement. Not only does this make apprenticeships an outlier (A levels and T levels don’t require them)”, there is of course the need for literacy and numeracy skills within the workplace. However, we cannot escape that the world communicates at that level and the skills are required. So whilst I totally support that we should lower the literacy and numeracy levels of apprenticeships to help individuals access a vocational route to employment, for their own daily and independent living, life choices and requirements in the workplace, we do need help every individual achieve literacy and numeracy skills. However, how it is measured and they types of exams are a further conversation.

Sadly, FE Week reports that “These exit conditions of gaining literacy and numeracy levels are often the very reason for the qualifications’ near-fifty per cent drop-out rate. Worse still, they can stop many from even signing up for an apprenticeship in the first place”.

FE Week continues, this absolutely does not mean that English and maths aren’t vital skills, or that they should somehow be removed from apprenticeships. But study towards English and maths as a condition of funding rather than an exit requirement would mean employers and providers could target the essential literacy and numeracy skills actually needed for a particular occupation rather than forcing the apprentice’s attention to unnecessary elements that bear little or no relation to what is vocationally essential.

I’m pretty sure the SEND pilot was not intended to highlight the strength of the case for English and maths qualifications to be dropped as an exit requirement for apprenticeships – but that does rather appear to be the case. Making this change would ensure we maintain literacy and numeracy as a central part of the apprenticeship but allow many more apprentices to build, refine and demonstrate their vocational skills to the benefit of themselves, employers and society as a whole.

Read the full article here

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