Keep apprentices engaged during COVID-19

Aston University is committed to continuing to provide the highest possible level of support to all of our apprentices and employers during this difficult time.  Many of our employers have been in touch over the last few weeks to discuss the situation and seek our view on how we can work together to manage our way through this process and see how we can make the most of it.  We have captured the most common questions below, and will update the information as we get it and respond to advice from the ESFA, DFE, and Public Health England.  We continue to remind apprentices that they need to talk to their employer and unless otherwise told by you, they should continue to follow their existing study plan.

In order to facilitate the learning experience for all of our apprentices, we would like to remind all of our employer partners to notify us of any changes in circumstances or employment status as soon as possible so that we can provide accurate and timely assistance.

We are here to help in any way we can during this period, and if you have any questions please in the first instance contact your Service Delivery Manager directly, or if in doubt, email us at apprenticeships@aston.ac.uk.  

Can learners continue on an apprenticeship?

In line with government advice, we have closed our physical premises, for all except those students in residences who are unable to return home, maintaining the fabric of the university estate and providing accommodation to key workers in Conference Aston. All of our programmes are continuing and are broadly following the same timetable as before the shutdown. All classroom sessions and resources are available online through our virtual learning environment, Blackboard. Apprentices do not need to attend a physical training room or to have physical contact with colleagues in order to continue. So those working from home, for example, can continue with their apprenticeship as long as they can access Blackboard and apply their learning in their home-working environment.

If an apprentice is unable to do any learning ('on' or 'off the job') for four consecutive weeks or longer, we can arrange for them to have a Break in Learning. Please talk to your Service Delivery Manager about this.  If you do need to put an apprentice on a break, please allow us to do this for you - do not stop their funding on the Levy system as it will then be difficult to restart them.

When can apprentices expect to receive their apprenticeship certificate?

We are working closely with our end-point assessment organisations for apprentices who have recently undertaken End Point Assessments during this time. One organisation has let us know that it can take 4-6 weeks for a certificate to arrive under normal circumstances and this is likely to be longer considering the current situation. Apprenticeship certificates are normally sent out to an employer address and will be returned to the end point assessment organisation if they cannot be delivered.

If an apprentice is waiting on an apprenticeship certificate please contact your Service Delivery Manager who will be able to raise this with the appropriate organisation for you.

What happens for an apprentice being furloughed? Can they continue training?

Yes, an apprentice can continue studying whilst furloughed, as they are still being paid and are still in employment.  This is subject to some caveats below which are designed to ensure that apprentices are focused on their training and are not carrying out any work.

The government updated its advice on 27 March 2020 to specify that undertaking training, whilst furloughed, is permitted: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wage-costs-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme

"Furloughed employees can engage in training, as long as in undertaking the training the employee does not provide services to, or generate revenue for, or on behalf of their organisation or a linked or associated organisation. Furloughed employees should be encouraged to undertake training.

Where training is undertaken by furloughed employees, at the request of their employer, they are entitled to be paid at least their appropriate national minimum wage for this time. In most cases, the furlough payment of 80% of an employee’s regular wage, up to the value of £2,500, will provide sufficient monies to cover these training hours. However, where the time spent training attracts a minimum wage entitlement in excess of the furlough payment, employers will need to pay the additional wages."

We recommend to all employers that apprentices continue on their programme wherever possible, rather than go on a Break in Learning. This is also recommended by the Association of Employer and Learning Providers, who have stated that apprentices should continue with their studies, whilst not working.

In many cases, employees placed on furlough lose access to their work email.  We ask you to remind apprentices to use their Aston email account (this account is the record of reference for all student and apprentice communications) in order to keep in touch with us.  If they have provided their work email to us as a contact point, we advise them to change this to a personal email account.

Most importantly, while on furlough, we encourage all apprentices to carefully log their learning hours so that their accrued hours can be utilised against the requirement for 20% off-the-job learning. 

Since they are on furlough, apprentices won’t be able to undertake their normal activities, which will impact their ability to develop evidence for their end point assessment.  However, it is an opportunity for apprentices to reflect on their professional practice and “work up” examples of application in the workplace aligned to the relevant apprenticeship standard, and we encourage apprentices to do this with the support of their learning coach/workplace tutor.

However, if the apprentice cannot do any study or skills and behaviour development relevant to their apprenticeship standard for more than four consecutive weeks, (perhaps due to caring responsibilities at home) then they may need to go on a Break in Learning from their apprenticeship. This should be for a four week period and then reviewed.

If your apprentice is furloughed please ensure we are notified – please let your Service Delivery Manager know.

We will place this information on the apprentice's records and make an extra effort to encourage them to continue with their studies.

What are the implications for the 20% off the job learning target for apprentices on furlough? How can I support my apprentice to stay on track?

Whilst apprentices who are furloughed won’t be able to work, there is certainly opportunity for them to make the most of their time.

All apprentices are required to undertake and evidence that they have spent 20% of their time in off-the-job learning over the duration of the apprenticeship, and every employer is required to support this.  What is important to bear in mind is that the 20% requirement is assessed over the entire duration of the apprenticeship, and it is not directly measured on a monthly or weekly basis, allowing for the natural peaks and troughs of activity in the workplace, and providing flexibility in organising and scheduling independent learning. While we seek to track individual apprentice learning throughout the duration of the apprenticeship, and while we report progress on these targets to the ESFA, there is no expectation that an apprentice should be able to demonstrate they are achieving the 20% target on a constant, rolling basis.

Whilst furlough provides many challenges to employers and apprentices, there are also opportunities: the apprentice is likely to have more time available to undertake directed study, reading, online learning, reflection and other activities that can count towards the 20% (as long as in doing so they do not, directly or indirectly provide any economic benefit to their employer). So the apprentice may be able to undertake more intensive off-the-job learning during their furlough period which can contribute to their overall 20% learning hours target.

It should also be noted that we encourage employers to closely support and facilitate the development of their apprentice:  we recognise that during furlough the apprentice is likely to have to undertake their learning on a more independent, self-directed basis.  However, for apprentices studying at level 6 and 7 this is a reasonable expectation.

In all cases, it is a requirement that the apprenticeship is undertaken as a partnership between the apprentice, the learning provider and the employer, and the employer is required to provide support and engagement with the apprentice to facilitate their learning.  Anything employers can do during this challenging period to help their apprentices to develop their skills, knowledge and behaviours is to be encouraged, and will provide benefits for all parties going forward.

Can a staff member on furlough start an apprenticeship?
Yes. Since a staff member on furlough is still classed as in employment, they are allowed to start an apprenticeship.  Employers and apprentices should carefully consider whether it is the right time to start the apprenticeship, as the apprenticeship standards require evidencing of work-based application, and this cannot be done in the context of a furlough. 
What is the position of apprentices needing a Break in Learning?

If an apprentice is unable to do any learning ('on' or 'off the job') for four consecutive weeks or longer, we can arrange for them to have a Break in Learning until they are in a better position to learn. Please talk to your Service Delivery Manager about this. The steps are:

  • You notify us in writing via your Service Delivery Manager that you wish an apprentice to have a Break in Learning.
  • The SDM will process the Break in Learning and agree an in-principle return to learning date with you.
  • If the apprenticeship is funded via The Apprenticeship Service, please only pause the funding. We ask you not to stop it, as this will cause complications when the Break in Learning is lifted.
What is the impact of exam cancellations and changes in assessments, on an apprenticeship?

As a university, we had a major examination period planned on campus for April-June 2020.  Some of the apprenticeships programmes will have had examinations scheduled in this period.  We have taken the decision for all of our programmes to cancel all in-person examinations through to the summer.  Each programme is making its own individual arrangements relative to the programme structure and specification and apprenticeship standard.  In most cases, timed examinations can be replaced with alternative forms of assessment (essays, case studies, etc.).  Your apprentice should have received communications from their relevant programme team to explain our plans.  Our aim in this is to enable apprentices to continue on-programme and on-schedule, with the minimum of disruption to study timetables and learning objectives.

As a university, we have had to rapidly announce some policy decisions concerning assessment for our full-time on-campus students, many of whom were planning for their final examinations in the run up to the summer.  As you will appreciate, the issue of final assessment after four years of study is of special concern to our students, and we have developed an approach utilising coursework assessments and amendments to our regulations to facilitate this in the fairest possible way.  We are giving on-campus students the opportunity to use an enhanced exceptional circumstances process and a revised process for extensions to assessment submission dates.  We have also put in place an enhanced process for deferred assessments.  While all of these processes have been put in place with on-campus full-time students in mind, some of these arrangements may impact specific apprenticeship programmes, and if so the programme teams will have communicated any changes to your apprentice.

With regard to external (non-university-run) exams and assessments (including Functional Skills and End Point Assessments), we are working with awarding bodies to find alternative/remote solutions that will enable apprentices to undertake assessment without breaching contact restrictions.

Is Aston accepting new apprentices? How are you dealing with recruitment for level 6 apprenticeships in the light of changes to A-levels?

Yes, Aston is open for new apprenticeship starts – but please note learning will be online for the foreseeable future and new starts have also moved online where possible. We have already successfully started several new apprenticeship intakes during the pandemic, and Aston is open for business and is available to continue to meet the needs of our clients.

We are aware of the uncertainty brought about by school closures and changes to examination arrangements, which is likely to be especially challenging for this year’s A-level and BTEC candidates.  The latest information we have is that A-level results will be released on August 13th, as originally planned.  We continue to make conditional offers to those who have not yet been awarded their grades, and we will be treating all grades for school leavers in the same way as for previous years:  we do not anticipate allowing for any extenuating circumstances for applicants if they fail to achieve their hoped-for grades beyond the formal appeals processes operated by the relevant examination boards.

What happens to apprentices who are being made redundant?

If you are not able to furlough your apprentice, or provide a break in learning and have to make them redundant, we will provide guidance to the apprentice about seeking alternative employment.

The government currently allows apprentices 12 weeks to find alternative employment and still continue with their apprenticeship. Please get in touch with your Service Delivery Manager for more information and guidance.