The best learning providers assess all learners on or before enrolment to ascertain starting points. Are you among them?

Initial assessment of skills, prior knowledge and learning needs are all vital to achieving your goals at every stage of the learning journey and setting the learner, and your organisation, up for success. That’s why “identify” is the first stage of the Quality Assurance Framework.

Cognitive assessments

No provider would pick and choose which apprentices are assessed on prior knowledge, so why would we do it for learning needs?

Digital cognitive assessments offer a scalable way to assess the learning needs of all your learners.

So, what is a cognitive assessment and why is measuring cognition in education crucial for supporting learning?

Cognitive assessments are tools that use specifically designed tasks to understand different types of cognition. The Cognassist digital cognitive assessment measures eight key cognitive domains essential for learning and gives us insight into how people think and learn and areas where people could benefit from support.

Using cognitive assessments in education can help us to improve access to learning and give people the confidence to meet the demands of their course and the working world. It’s especially important as many learners, throughout their education, will not present with distinct cognitive challenges.

Thinking that it’s enough to assess a learner once they start showing signs that they are falling behind would be a mistake. Unfortunately, whole-cohort learning needs screening has yet to be embedded into primary and secondary education systems, so it’s up to the post-16 sector to step up.

To achieve this, all learners must be assessed. Pre-selecting who should complete a cognitive assessment doesn’t consider unconscious bias and the very nature of hidden needs, and it could be leaving it too late to support the learner properly. Waiting for problems to occur isn’t a strategy.

You can avoid this if you identify learners’ needs early on.

Take the Government apprenticeship rules around initial assessment of prior knowledge, for example. Every apprentice goes through this for the same reasons as the learning needs assessment. Initial assessments allow providers to “deliver appropriate tailored content” and “establish the right starting point”, leading to higher retention and achievement rates.

Ofsted also highlight the importance of starting points in the Education Inspection Framework and SEND is mentioned at every stage of the FE Skills Inspection Handbook. Recently, there has been a clear focus from Ofsted on the importance of assessing all learners. We’ve also seen significant importance placed on the timing of assessment, which needs to be at the very beginning of the learning journey, not a month in – more on this later from Paul Joyce.


What are the risks of only assessing certain learners?

Learners already suffer with low identification rates

The lack of identification of learning needs is a consistent problem in the education system.

Relying on learners to self-disclose their needs is not enough, and we cannot undermine the importance of initial assessment.

“Early initial assessment had a positive impact on the take-up of learning support, a key factor in improving success rates. Where data were available, apprentices who received learning support as a result of initial assessment did as well as, or better than, those who did not require it.” (Ofsted, 2010)

If we don’t fully utilise tools designed to support the early identification of learning needs, we risk making the issue worse.

Our data shows that 1 in 3 apprentices has a cognitive learning need. If your identification rate falls well below this, then more of your learners may be at risk of becoming disengaged and dropping out without the appropriate support.

But low identification rates are not the only issue.

It’s a discriminatory process

If only certain learners are assessed, how are those decisions being made? Who is making them and on what grounds?

Having a human making this call introduces an unavoidable bias, which can be harmful to learners – especially now, with a widening disadvantage gap. Treating some learners differently than others could lead to unlawful discrimination and it will certainly mean that some learners do not receive the support they need.

Learning needs are invisible, and if you decide to only assess certain learners, how many will fall through the cracks?

It adds pressure on staff and the learner journey

Specialists train for years to understand and identify learning needs, it is not right to expect untrained staff to identify learners who potentially require support. And without support for already very busy staff, it is incredibly unlikely that they will identify all learners, increasing the likelihood of dropout.

In a 2019 report on reasons for non-completion of apprenticeships, the Department for Education found that “non-completers often challenged the level of support they received.”[1]

Currently, on average 54.5% of apprentices do not complete their course.[2] We need to do more to ensure that every apprentice receives the same high-quality experience and an equal opportunity for success.

The first 42 days are crucial to the learning journey, curriculum planning and any potential programme extensions the learner may require. But what happens to learners who are identified well beyond this cut-off point?

Using a rigorously tested digital cognitive assessment removes the strain on staff and allows organisations to be more agile and adaptive, but that is not the only benefit.


What are the benefits of assessing all learners?

Compliance with the rules around SEND learners

Assessing all learners on enrolment gives everyone a clear starting point as required by the Education Inspection Framework. At the 2021 AELP conference, Paul Joyce, Deputy Director for FE & Skills at Ofsted, shared what Outstanding looked like from Ofsted’s perspective. Prompt identification and effective support for SEND learners were listed as Outstanding criteria.

“It is best practice [to assess learners on enrolment]. It should be talked about, and make sure you have a look at the guidance for that,” Karen Bennett, Senior Policy Lead at the Education & Skills Funding Agency, during a panel discussion in November 2021.

Improving positive learner outcomes and reducing dropout

We’re all on a mission to improve outcomes and raise the standards of apprenticeships, but you can’t support needs that you don’t identify. And not knowing about needs isn’t a valid excuse. The Public Sector Equality Duty makes this very clear with the concept of “Constructive Knowledge”, you can find out more about this in our “How to understand and support learners from day one” whitepaper. Assessing all learners at the start ensures an inclusive process and more engaged learners. Fundamentally, inclusive apprenticeships make for outstanding apprenticeships.

A case study with Realise Training, who work with over 7,000 learners, found that, through the use of early cognitive assessment, personalised support could be quickly put in place, driving better communication between tutors and learners and accelerating engagement overall. With this method, Realise attained a high LDD learner success rate, showing the importance of embedding whole-cohort cognitive assessments into your processes.

But the power of cognition and knowing the way they think and learn isn’t only helpful to the learner during their apprenticeship, but for the rest of their careers too. We have several learner success stories on our website, showing positive outcomes and lives changed because of the way learners were supported.

An approach to equality that improves learner experience and success

By introducing a scalable process that drives inclusivity, allowing all learners to take a cognitive assessment on enrolment, you will invariably improve their experience. Learners will feel more confident and empowered with the additional knowledge about their cognition. And you can put a personalised learning plan in place from the start to help every learner succeed in their apprenticeship.

Neurodiversity is much more common than we think, and our assessment has been used in the education sector for nearly five years. We have assessed over 100,000 people aged 16 to 64. It is very likely that we have the largest dataset of cognitive profiles in the world, and we use this to create an ever-increasing understanding of neurodiversity and how we can support different learners.

With learner support, a proactive approach is always better than selective practices that reduce the impact you can have on your entire cohort of learners.

It’s not just our mission to ensure no learner is left behind, it needs to be yours.


If you’re already working with Cognassist and wondering how you could best leverage the power of cognition for all your learners, reach out to your Customer Success Manager for tips on learner support best practices.

And for everyone who wants to know more about improving their learner experience and reducing dropout, check out our handbook: How to prevent your apprentices dropping out.


[1]  FE learners and apprentices study: reasons for non-completion

[2] Apprenticeship statistics for England – House of Commons Library (

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What’s included?

  • Building confidence to reduce drop out
  • Neurodiversity in education
  • 5 tips to prevent your apprentices dropping out
Image: How prevent your apprentices dropping out - cover