ESFA apprenticeship audit: common errors and how to avoid them
On 11th June 2019 the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) published the snappily titled “Common findings from funding assurance work on post-16 providers and institutions” guidance document. It summarises the findings from the agency’s annual programme of assurance visits (in other words, audits) of providers delivering:
- 16 to 19 study programmes
- adult education budget (AEB)
- Advanced Learner Loans
For apprenticeships, there were no real surprises contained in the guidance if you have been working closely with the sector since the reforms were implemented (or more accurately started).
Here’s a summary of the key findings relevant to apprenticeships and some tips for avoiding them to ensure a smooth and successful audit:
1. Recognition of prior learning
Some providers have failed to reduce the funding claimed for learners who have relevant prior learning. The ESFA has even introduced a new report in the Provider Data Self-Assessment Tool (PDSAT) to help providers understand where they may have failed to reduce the price - and to allow the Agency to monitor provider data on this too of course.
Top tip: If you aren’t checking your ILR data using the PDSAT every month, start now. And if all of your apprenticeships are charged at the same rate for all learners, then the likelihood is that you have an issue and need to review who should have their funding reduced because of prior learning or experience.
2. Ineligible costs
You can’t calculate how to reduce the funding for RPL if you don’t have a model of how the costs of the apprenticeship have been calculated in the first place using eligible costs only.
Top tip: Create a template for calculating the cost of every apprenticeship standard or framework you deliver and check this against the eligible costs in the funding rules. Use this baseline model of costing to justify your Total Negotiated Price (TNP) price and amend this baseline to evidence reduction of price tailored for each learner who has RPL.
3. Minimum duration
This is one of the easiest rules to comply with and yet according to the recent findings, it’s one of the most common – and potentially most costly - errors! If this condition is not met, the whole apprenticeship for that learner will be ineligible for funding.
Top tip: As well as checking that all your apprenticeships meet the minimum duration rules, double-check that reducing the content of the apprenticeship to account for RPL doesn’t take the length of the apprenticeship below the minimum duration.
4. Off-the-job training
This is another one essential for funding, and if this condition is not met, the whole apprenticeship for that learner is ineligible for funding.
Top tip: Like the top tip for eligible costs, create a template for modelling how off-the-job training will be delivered for every framework or standard during the given duration. Then tailor it for every apprentice who has the content reduced due to RPL. Evidence of actual off-the-job training needs to be recorded for every learner and needs to evidence that it matches the model.
Check that 20% off-the-job has actually been delivered before completion and/or end point assessment.
5. Commitment statement and apprenticeship agreement
The information recorded on the commitment statement must reconcile with the apprenticeship agreement and the ILR. The absence of this evidence may result in a funding error.
Top tip: This isn’t just an induction process – you may need to update all three documents with relevant changes in circumstances such as breaks in learning, changes of job title, pathway or standard.
6. Learning start, learner status, learning end dates
This one is as old as the hills and sounds very simple, yet so many providers get caught out by it. Basically, if you are claiming funding for a learner starting their apprenticeship, you need to have evidence that they have started learning – not just been enrolled, inducted or started a new job. You need evidence that they have to have started learning activity related to the content of their apprenticeship.
Once they have started, if an apprentice is noted on your ILR as in learning, you need to be able to evidence at audit that they are undertaking learning on an ongoing basis. Again, don’t assume that attendance at work or college is evidence of learning, unless you can prove that they were there doing learning activity which forms part of their apprenticeship.
If a learner takes a break in learning or they withdraw from their apprenticeship you must be able to evidence learning up to the withdrawal date. If you can’t then you should change the withdrawal date to correspond with the last piece of learning evidence you have, even if that means drawing down less funding. With work-based learning particularly it’s very easy to get caught out because learners often withdraw because of dismissal at the end of a lengthy disciplinary process during which the learner is not engaged with learning. In that circumstance the end date on the ILR should be the last date of learning taking place and not the last date of employment.
Top tip: Review your learner list every month to check that they really are all in learning. This is where an eportfolio really comes into its own as you have an audit trail of learning taking place.
7. Employment status
Having stated at the start there were no surprises, I wasn’t expecting employment status to crop up in the findings. It’s simple – an apprenticeship is work-based learning; if the learner isn’t in employment, then they aren’t an apprentice and you can’t draw down funding for their learning.
Top tip: Don’t get caught out by signing up learners before their contract start date and using that as their enrolment date and the ILR learning start date (see also 2 above). It may only be a difference of a few days but they aren’t employed according to the funding rules.
8. Payment of employer contributions and small employer waiver
For delivery to non-Levy employers you need to evidence that you have invoiced the 10% contribution. For any employers where you are charging above the maximum funding cap, you also need to show that you have invoiced them for this difference.
Top tip: Invest in a student management system with good functionality around financial records and invoicing. For employers with 49 or fewer employees, make sure that you have a signed declaration from them before you deliver any learning.
9. English and maths
All learners who complete their level 1 English or maths should be offered the opportunity to study at level 2.
Top tip: Build this into your level 1 completion process. Could you hand out a letter with the certificate? You don’t just need to do it – you need to be able to evidence that it’s being done which can be difficult if none of your learners go on to study at level 2.
These are my top tips to help you build audit preparation into your everyday delivery - but as always, they aren’t a substitute for reading the full document.
If you’d like to talk to one of our apprenticeship funding and compliance experts to for further advice on preparing for audit, get in touch.