Apprenticeships are the UK’s ‘weakest’ education provision, watchdog warns

Ofsted says many providers are failing to develop their curriculums in conjunction with employers

The education watchdog has called apprenticeships the “weakest” area of the UK’s further education provision, with one in 10 providers being judged as ‘inadequate’.

In its annual report for 2019-20, Ofsted said nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of new providers that were inspected received at least one insufficient progress judgement, which in many cases was down to “weak leadership and a lack of co-development of the curriculum with employers”.

Apprentices were also among those learners regulated by the watchdog to have missed out most on their education because of the coronavirus restrictions. Ofsted said 36 per cent of apprentices were furloughed over the course of the year, 8 per cent were made redundant and 17 per cent had their off-the-job learning suspended.

The crisis has also had an effect on the finances of apprenticeships – which are dependent on funding through the levy scheme that is not currently guaranteed. “[Providers’] viability depends on businesses buying their training services, but some of those customers have gone, or will go, out of business themselves or reduced their training,” Ofsted warned.

The report said that, as of 31 August 2020, there were nearly 1,900 providers that were publicly funded and delivering education, training and/or apprenticeships, a drop of 2 per cent compared to the same time in 2019.

“The full impact of this remains to be seen, but some providers have already ceased trading,” the report added.

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Separate analysis by Small Business Prices – a price comparison site – found that new apprenticeship starts plummeted during the start of the crisis. Figures from the Department for Education showed the number of apprenticeship starts between March and May 2020 dropped by 50 per cent compared to the same period last year.

Health and social care was among the worst-hit sectors, the analysis found, with 7,487 fewer starts in 2020 than 2019. Administration, child development and business management were also among the sectors that saw the biggest falls.

Ian Wright, founder of Small Business Prices, said it was important for businesses and providers to consider the impact the pandemic has had on apprenticeships. “Not only are universities becoming increasingly expensive, but because of Covid-19 the ‘traditional’ university experience has shifted,” he said.

“As a result, students may want to explore different career paths and this research aims to provide insight into the options available, to help students make informed decisions.” 

The CIPD has repeatedly called on the government to increase investment in training and to make the apprenticeship levy more flexible to ensure British workers have the skills needed to rebuild the economy when the pandemic finally starts to abate – a problem that could be exacerbated by a drop in migration after Brexit.

“Many employers, especially those in low-skilled sectors, will be forced to make full use of the available domestic workforce and will need to develop tactics to attract more applicants to roles that have historically been filled by EU nationals,” warned Gerwyn Davies, senior labour market adviser at the CIPD.