Written evidence submitted by The St Martin’s Group
The St Martin’s Group
Response to the Education Committee Inquiry
'The impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services.'
About The St Martin’s Group
The St Martin’s Group is an ambitious membership organisation established in 2019 to provide practical support to policymakers as they seek to create a world-class Apprenticeship system for the UK. Our fast-growing membership comprises senior leaders from some of the country’s largest employers, training providers and end point assessment companies. Together they represent the UK’s Apprenticeship delivery infrastructure, accounting for approximately 1 in 10 of all Apprentices. Uniquely, The St Martin’s Group is the only independent body where the views of all three pillars of the Apprenticeship market come together in one place.
We are committed to providing timely advice and practical solutions in advance of policy reform, underpinned by the data and frontline experience of our members. Throughout the course of the Coronavirus pandemic, we have provided the Government with a cross-industry perspective on the effects of the virus, insight into the consequences of the efforts to combat it upon the sector, and realistic suggestions about the support that might be offered in order to protect and maintain the UK’s world-class apprenticeships system.
Response to the inquiry
The St Martin’s Group is grateful for the opportunity to respond to the Education Committee’s inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services. Further to our submission, we would be delighted to assist the Committee in any practicable way as it undertakes this inquiry, and would be keen to brief the Committee's members and staff, to provide additional detail on the points we illustrate below. To arrange such a briefing, please contact email@example.com.
The St Martin’s Group has chosen to illustrate a number of relevant themes from the Committee’s call for evidence in this submission and has structured its response accordingly.
1. Comments on the implementation of the critical workers policy, including how consistently the definition of ‘critical’ work is being applied across the country.
The St Martin’s Group’s members operate in a wide range of sectors across the economy, and as a result, are affected to varying degrees by the lockdown and the definition of critical workers. Some operate in sectors in which work cannot be carried out remotely, and these require apprentices to be on-site to provide essential services. Others are less exposed to the lockdown and have policies to keep travel to an absolute minimum during the crisis. Generally, the Group is satisfied with the intent and application of the Government’s critical workers policy.
2. The effect of cancelling formal exams (or assessments), including the fairness of qualifications awarded and pupils’ progression to the next stage of education or employment.
Many of The St Martin’s Group’s members are in the process of dealing with the challenges posed by COVID-19 with respect to qualifications and progression. From an employer perspective, although grades and academic qualifications are useful indicators, individuals’ performance at employer assessment centres is deemed to be a more effective measure of quality. Indeed, our members are experiencing issues with estimating results, particularly for those assessments with a practical or in-person dimension, or in subject areas not subject to previous or similar assessment for the individual.
Members are working with learners to ensure that no individual is adversely affected as a result of exams being cancelled. Some provider members have indicated that it is likely that more leniency will be introduced to reflect the current situation. These decisions will be made in consultation with learners and their employers.
3. Comments on the support that has been made available for pupils and families during closures, including the effect on apprenticeships and other workplace-based education courses.
Employers and providers have adapted to minimise the disruption to courses and avoid breaks in learning. For many, this has meant moving materials online and using online communications technologies to support learners. This has accelerated a process of digitisation that was already in motion across the sector. For others, the ‘critical worker’ categorisation has been useful in maintaining continuity in cases where services are essential and cannot be carried out remotely.
Some concerns have been raised with regards to the tests that have deadlines after which they cease to be valid (e.g. Software Developer Level 4). On these specific points, members are engaging with policymakers to protect the interests of learners. The Group hopes and expects that leniency will be applied in these cases.
4. Comments on the financial implications of closures for providers (including higher education and independent training providers), pupils and families.
Members of the St Martin’s Group are working to ensure that the delivery of training is prioritised throughout the ongoing pandemic. However, there are concerns about the effects on apprentices and employers if providers are forced to close temporarily or permanently.
Our provider members have noted that although there is a significant immediate financial strain upon the sector, this will likely continue well into the recovery phase of the Government’s response. This is owing to the disruption to learning and to apprenticeship starts. It is likely that a significant proportion of those placed on breaks in learning during the crisis will not return to their apprenticeship following the return to normality, for a variety of reasons. It is also clear that there will be a significant decrease in the number of apprenticeship starts in the first half of the year, and this will be likely to continue for as long as the impacts of the pandemic are being felt by the employers of apprentices.
If providers close, employers will have to find other providers, and if apprenticeship programmes are therefore run differently, employers may have to pay commercial costs to continue these programmes. This issue may take time to manifest itself, as providers seek to weather the economic challenges of the virus and the recovery, but this may be prevented if prompt action is taken to ensure apprenticeship numbers do not drop to an unsustainable level.
Finally, there is concern that if providers who are supporting learners in smaller organisations close, it is probable that the apprenticeship, and possibly the job, will cease to exist. This would be a poor outcome for the learners, and for the reputation of the whole sector going forward.
5. Comments on the effect on disadvantaged groups, including the long-term impact on the most vulnerable groups (such as apprentices with special educational needs and disabilities).
Members of The St Martin’s Group are aware that the effects of the current crisis will be felt most keenly by the most vulnerable, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. Ultimately there is an appreciation that, although investment in technology for online learning has vastly improved what providers and employers can offer during the lockdown, certain individuals will be more comfortable when they are allowed to resume face to face learning. It is also important to note that some apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have a suitable home environment in which to study and work, even if they have the appropriate technology
Large market participants have the capacity to reach out to vulnerable learners and find out if they are being affected disproportionately by the switch to online learning. This additional attention can take many forms, from ensuring that students have the necessary technical means to study remotely, to providing support to those who may be struggling mentally as a result of the lockdown. There is a fear that organisations with lesser capacity may not be able to provide the same support for their students, inevitably leading to worse outcomes for vulnerable groups.
Finally, it has been noted that those apprentices with additional caring responsibilities, such as for family members, are more likely to enter a break in learning, and thus may be more likely not to return to their apprenticeship following a return to normality. Employers and providers are doing everything they can to prevent this, but support must be made available for those caring for disadvantaged groups. This will ensure that levels of disruption are kept to a minimum as the UK moves beyond the crisis.
6. Comments on the contingency planning that can be done to ensure the resilience of the sector in case of any future national emergency.
Group Members appreciate the unprecedented nature of the current crisis and recognise that contingency planning for any major disruption in the future should not be predicated solely on the disruptions caused by COVID-19. However, there are lessons that can be learned to reduce disruption in the future.
An element of planning that deserves attention is ensuring that organisations involved in the delivery of apprenticeships are aware of the support framework in the case of enforced remote learning, in order to protect the interests of employers and learners. An example of a mechanism to preserve continuity that has been proposed by the St Martin’s Group is to allow employers to extend programmes and continue to pay providers with additional levy funds. This would provide much-needed liquidity for providers to prevent enforced breaks in learning. Throughout the pandemic, The St Martin’s Group has sought to engage with policymakers to provide solutions to these challenges as they arise.
7. Other observations on the effect of COVID-19 on the apprenticeships sector, not covered by the themes above.
The St Martin’s Group was established to provide constructive feedback and workable solutions to those developing apprenticeship policy, and the Group is committed to working with the Department for Education to improve the sector in the light of COVID-19. The response of our membership to the measures implemented to protect the economy after the introduction of lockdown has generally been positive, and as a Group, we are encouraged to see that policymakers at DfE and the Treasury are eager to understand the situation ‘on the ground’ through engagement with employers and providers.
This willingness to listen to concerns from the sector should be praised, and retained as a guiding principle in devising policies to aid the recovery. For example, with the crisis likely to lead to a sharp increase in youth unemployment, levy funding could be put towards apprenticeship salaries to kick-start recruitment as we move into the next stage of recovery.
Apprentices will play a vital part in the economic recovery and future of the UK, and it is vital that the sector is in a position to enable this in the coming months. The St Martin’s Group would be delighted to discuss solutions to address this, and the other issues we have highlighted, further with the Committee’s members and its staff.