Alarming numbers of apprentices with hidden learning difficulties

One in three apprentices have learning difficulties or disabilities (LDD) and only a fraction have been diagnosed, according to one of the biggest ever studies of apprentices across the UK.

While official government figures report that one in ten (11.5%) learners say that they self-identify with a LDD – which can range from dyslexia, to visual impairment, to mental health difficulties – the new analysis suggests that up to 35% of apprentices have a hidden or neurodiverse learning difficulty and ought to get additional support from their employers, training providers and end point assessment organisations.

The research, by Cognassist, analysed the cognitive abilities of more than 30,000 apprentice learners aged 19-60. The findings were then subject to a deeper dive among a sample of 8,000 learners before being compared and cross-referenced to the most recent annual data sets on apprenticeships published by the Department for Education (DfE).

While apprentices with identified learning needs have the right to access relevant reasonable adjustments – support to ensure they are not at a disadvantage compared to their peers – Cognassist’s analysis suggests that up to 15% of learners are currently dropping out of their programmes because their needs aren’t being identified and the right support isn’t being applied for and allocated by HR teams or training providers. The research authors believe that around 8,800 learners could have dropped out of their apprenticeship in the past 12 months alone because their needs were not met.

The report also points out that a failure to assess and recognise learners’ needs not only puts an apprentice at a disadvantage compared to their peers, it also means that employers, training providers and end-point-assessors are missing out on the extra ESFA Learning Support Funding that is available for apprentices who require more support. Cognassist estimates that as much as £22 million is going unclaimed because of missed learning difficulties that assessments could quickly spot.

According to the Reasonable Adjustments and Beyond report “many individuals don’t disclose their disabilities, SEN, or additional learning needs in their job application forms because they feel embarrassed or scared about sharing this information”.

Apprentices learning across London appear the most likely to have a LDD that they don’t know about or don’t want to draw attention to. Cognassist analysis suggests that 44% are entitled to additional support, yet 33% aren’t having it requested by their employers, training providers or end-point-assessors. Learners across the North East appear most aware of their support needs, but as many as one in five (21%) could still be missing out on extra funding to help them successfully complete their apprenticeship.

Apprentices working in construction are least likely to consider themselves as needing extra support. Less than 7% think they have a learning difficulty, disability, or health problem but the new analysis shows that an additional two in five (42% or 1,293 learners) might benefit from reasonable adjustments.

The report also highlights that an additional 3,501 of last year’s care worker and nursing apprentice cohort would have been allowed reasonable adjustment funding had a claim been submitted.

Chris Quickfall, CEO at Cognassist, says that “unidentified learning needs can expose learners to unnecessary stress and anxiety, increasing the potential of them dropping out or quitting their jobs. There are currently more than 12,000 learners who, despite having no formal diagnosis, still have a need that requires support.

“Earlier this year the DfE revealed that the overall achievement rate for apprenticeships fell last year by 2 percentage points to 65%. The decline followed three years where just over two thirds of apprentices managed to pass their courses. I have no doubt that the lack of reasonable adjustments for LDD learners had a role to play in such consistently low achievement rates.

“All decision-makers need to ensure they are doing their part to implement reasonable adjustments and create more inclusive learning environments that consider learners’ individual needs. The truth is that many people are unaware of the importance and impact of reasonable adjustments.

“Employers need to improve their learners’ journey and make their education, especially end-point assessment, fairer for all. We can do more to break down barriers to learning and ensure all learners receive the help that they need to achieve success.

“It’s vital that employers help to remove the stigma associated with learning difficulties and disabilities to provide equal opportunities and access to employment.”

In a recent report the learning disability charity Mencap noted that “the reasons why people are unlikely to be forthcoming with their support needs are that they are concerned about the reaction they may get from employers, should they do so.

And in 2018 a poll of more than 300 HR professionals by the CIPD found that neurodiversity was ignored in the policies of 72% of employers across the UK. Around 17% said they did not know whether their organisation had a neurodiversity policy, while only 10.2% said they had one in place.

To download a free copy of Reasonable Adjustments and Beyond: Taking Steps to Remove Barriers to Learning please visit

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