Delivery of Essential Skills Wales qualifications in apprenticeship programmes
This report focuses on the delivery of Essential Skills Wales (ESW) qualifications in work-based learning apprenticeships. During May and June 2023, inspectors visited nine of the ten lead providers offering Welsh Government-funded apprenticeship programmes. We held meetings and spoke with learners, managers, delivery staff and employers. We observed group teaching sessions and one-to-one reviews. We carried out an anonymous online survey for learners, delivery staff and employers investigating respondents’ attitudes to ESW qualifications and the development of literacy, numeracy and digital skills on apprenticeship programmes.
The Welsh Government should:
- Work with Qualifications Wales and the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research to review the use of Essential Skills Wales qualifications in apprenticeships
- Refresh the Wales Essential Skills Toolkit (WEST) and resources
- Working with partners, develop opportunities for professional learning to enhance practitioners’ understanding of the pedagogy and capacity to deliver essential skills
Work-based learning apprenticeship providers should:
- Develop partnership working approaches to ensure that:
- learners have meaningful opportunities to study and take assessments bilingually or through the medium Welsh
- learners’ additional learning needs are promptly identified, evaluated and appropriately supported
- Ensure that learners who have already attained the required ESW qualifications or are exempted by proxy continue to develop their literacy, numeracy and digital skills
- Offer professional learning that develops tutors’ and assessors’ pedagogy to deliver essential skills
Lead providers should:
- Ensure that self-evaluation reflects on the effectiveness of the delivery models in use across the provider’s partners and sub-contractors and takes action to reduce the potential disadvantages identified in this report
What our thematic review said
Providers have developed a range of delivery models that are effective in enabling learners to complete their ESW qualifications. We categorise the models providers are using into six broad categories and outline their advantages and disadvantages.
We identify the characteristic features of effective programmes, including:
- the role of initial assessment, communication and co-ordination within a provider
- learners have a meaningful programme of study – whatever the delivery model used by the provider – which allows them to develop and practice their essential skills and prepare for the external assessments
- flexible provision that adapts to learners’ needs
- professional learning for delivery staff
- the support of an apprentice’s employer
Although providers are effective in enabling learners to achieve their ESW qualifications, we found that the teaching and learning of literacy, numeracy and digital skills in apprenticeships are unhelpfully skewed towards preparation for external assessment. Three main factors contribute to this: the time that apprentices have to complete their ESW qualifications over the relatively short period of their apprenticeship, the significant learning challenge often faced by learners to develop the skills needed for their ESW assessments, and an assessment model for ESW qualifications, which is largely generic and requires learners to apply skills in contexts often unrelated to their vocational background.
There was a consistent message from learners, providers and employers that having good literacy, numeracy and digital skills is important for life and work. However, learners strongly prefer and value learning these skills through the context of their work and vocational study. This presents a dilemma for providers: how best to develop learners’ literacy, numeracy and digital skills, drawing on learners’ clear preference for learning through their vocational context, while at the same time preparing them for external assessment, which requires learners to apply skills in contexts often unrelated to their vocational background.
There were three areas, related to the narrow focus on assessment, where the quality of learning was a concern. The first is learners’ ability to retain the skills that they have developed, summarised by one learner as, ‘I learn it for the test and then instantly forget it.’ The second is that learning is largely focused on preparing for external assessment tasks, reducing the skills being learnt to ‘things needed to get through the test’, rather than ‘useful skills that will help me in my work or wider life’. The third is the extent to which learners are able to apply the skills they have learnt to help them in their job roles or wider lives.
Given the limitations to learning outlined above, in the sessions we observed, most learners had a sound understanding of their strengths and weaknesses in literacy, numeracy and digital skills and many were clear about their progress and what they needed to do to improve. The majority made steady progress in developing the skills that were being addressed in that session. Most learners in our visits and online questionnaire reported receiving helpful support and feedback from their tutors or assessors, which helped them understand what they needed to do to improve and actions they needed to complete to do so.
Providers reported that failure to attain the ESW qualifications is not now a significant cause of learners not completing their overall framework. However, learners with additional learning needs or other barriers to learning such as not being a Welsh or English first language speaker may struggle to attain their ESW qualifications, and this is a barrier to them achieving overall framework success.
Very few apprentices carry out assessments for ESW qualifications bilingually or in Welsh. Overall, providers are not working in partnership well enough to support learners who wish to study their ESW qualifications bilingually or in Welsh.
While providers are effective in enabling learners to attain the ESW qualifications they need for their framework, learners who have already attained the required ESW qualifications or are exempted by proxy do not continue to develop their literacy, numeracy or digital skills consistently.