Could do better? Combatting the almost 50% apprentice drop-out rate.

The latest government figures for apprenticeship achievement have provoked consternation for many providers. Overall achievement rates are 57.7% for 2020-21, barely changed from 57.5% in the previous year. The devil is always in the detail though. This year’s old-style apprenticeship frameworks, in the process of being phased out, had a higher-than-average achievement rate of 68.9% against the new apprenticeship standards, at just 51.8%. They showed higher retention rates too, at 70% against just 53% retention for the new standards format.

Ofsted has been quick to respond to concerns from providers about how this will affect their grading, impacting on future funding. The introduction of standards was apparently expected to have a lowering effect on achievement rates in the first years, because the reform was intended to raise the bar on overall standards. It also introduced the end point assessment (EPA) element of the qualification, designed to give employers more confidence in the overall competence of qualified apprentices. Ofsted insists the current achievement rates will not affect grading.

Retention matters
The detail that should cause the most concern in these figures is retention, as barely half of apprentices on the new standards saw their apprenticeships through to the end. The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on all apprenticeships, old and new style, so it is worrying to see higher drop-out rates for the new standards.

Learner attrition is costly. Providers can only access 50% of the total funding available for a student if they fail to complete their course and increased drop-out rates will reduce funding for future student cohorts. This is a real problem at a time when funding per student is already in decline. Higher drop-out rates will, understandably, affect the viability of certain courses and subjects with some providers too.

Reduced retention can have a significant negative impact on staff morale, causing providers to lose good teachers and creating a less stable employment environment that further impacts on organisational reputation, leading to lower future enrolment numbers. For the learner, quitting an apprenticeship or level 3 qualification course may well damage their individual career opportunities and from a wider perspective, it reduces available skills in the UK workforce, potentially harming the economy.

Advanced’s research reveals that 95% of tutor/assessors and 100% of admin managers believe that early intervention is crucial for learner retention. This is where having access to accurate and up-to-date information comes into its own.

The Role of Data
FE providers need to be able to get actionable insights into learner attrition. By implementing powerful digital solutions that provide useful and meaningful data, they can better understand the reasons why some learners drop out.

The pandemic has, of course, complicated the usefulness of comparative year-on-year figures. In the case of apprenticeships, lockdowns meant that higher than usual numbers of learners went beyond their expected completion date or even out of funding altogether. Learners have reported higher than usual physical and mental health problems, as well as financial challenges. Some effects of the pandemic may be around for a considerable time to come.

Other reasons for attrition may include learners becoming demotivated by their own perceived underperformance, who quit if they don’t think they can achieve their goal. This highlights a need for accurate data to support regular, constructive feedback to drive motivation. Our research shows that 94% of tutor/assessors think an early intervention, where the need is highlighted by smart digital monitoring and assessment tools, is beneficial to the learner. Students may also be at risk from peer pressure and are more likely to follow suit when others drop out. The importance of providers and employers implementing policies that encourage more increased diversity and inclusion is crucial too. You can’t be what you can’t see, and all learners need to have peers, role models and mentors in the workplace and in college environments that they can identify with.

EPAs and Retention Rates
Another reason for increased attrition is the problem of artificial EPAs. This may explain why the new standards, that introduced the EPA, may be suffering from low retention rates at the moment. When students essentially complete their course by gaining their professional qualification, there is little incentive for them to stick around waiting for the scheduled EPA. For student nurses, the sometimes-lengthy gap between accreditation by the Nursing and Midwifery Council and actual course EPA was highlighted during the pandemic. Many newly-qualified nurses were entering the workplace ahead of their EPA to help the NHS cope with increased service demand. This gap affects learners in other sectors too, such as plumbing, where apprentices are attaining their Gas Safe qualification well in advance of EPA.

Learning providers can use data to examine and analyse these trends and make changes to things like EPA scheduling, in order to raise retention rates and secure full funding for each student. Insightful and meaningful data can help providers to highlight specific points in the calendar year where attrition may rise. It can help to identify learners who may need additional learning support, driving earlier and more effective interventions by tutors. It shows tutors what is and isn’t working, helping them to shape their course delivery and materials for better retention, pass rates and overall achievement rates.

The best digital solutions can dramatically improve the learner experience, giving them an intuitive platform that makes managing their own learner journey easier and more enjoyable. When they have a better understanding of how they are doing, it can encourage further engagement, achievement and importantly, decreased attrition.

Resources to Reduce Attrition
Having an in-depth understanding of learner attrition within its own organisation is key for all FE providers. This ensures maintained engagement, retained optimal funding, provision of a quality experience for learners and improved organisational reputation. To help with this, Advanced’s Smart Apprentices team has run a webinar led by expert Tony Allen, a prominent Further Education consultant. It focuses on the strategies being adopted by the Education community to reduce learner attrition – what works, what doesn’t and why, to understand the strategies providers can use to identify risks, support learners, and reduce attrition. To watch on demand; click here.

To register to our newsletter and receive regular updates, please complete the form below.