Fifth of apprenticeship providers rated insufficient, Ofsted reveals

Focus on government’s apprenticeship target has hampered training quality, experts warn

A fifth of apprenticeship providers Ofsted investigated in a recent government assessment were labelled insufficient, the education standards watchdog’s chief inspector this week revealed, raising fresh concerns over training quality. 

Under apprenticeship levy rules introduced in April 2017, organisations with an annual payroll of at least £3m are required to pay 0.5 per cent of that into a digital account. This payment can then be reclaimed as vouchers to spend on apprenticeship training supplied by adult education and apprenticeship learning providers. 

However, according to the recent Ofsted inspection of 60 sample training providers, 11 – equating to almost one in five – had made insufficient progress in at least one area. 

Speaking to the Financial Times, Ofsted’s chief inspector Anna Spielman expressed concern that the amount of money injected into the levy might be driving some providers to recoup government funding without guaranteeing a good training experience. More than 2,500 organisations registered as providers following the levy’s introduction – many of them employer providers spending their funding on in-house services – despite many having no previous experience with adult education training. 

“We know through a lot of painful history through many years that when you turn on the funding tap, a lot of minds will be used to work out how to get a slice of that,” she said. 

Chief executive of the Association of Employers and Learning Providers (AELP) Mark Dawe called for a more robust register of training providers, criticising the government’s relaxed approach to allowing new providers to take on apprentices. 

“While no market should be closed to new entrants, the government – which now claims that the apprenticeships reforms are about quality rather than quantity after the disastrous fall in starts – was far too loose in opening up apprenticeships to so many new providers,” he told People Management. 

“Good quality training comes at a cost and even experienced providers are finding aspects of the reforms to be a challenge.” 

The UK’s largest adult training provider, Learndirect, last year had funding from the Department for Education withdrawn following an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted grading, putting the future of 16,000 apprentices into question. The apprenticeships arm of the business was sold for £1 to employment agency Staffline in July. 

The government’s ambition to create three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 has been further derailed by organisations transferring existing employees onto apprenticeship programmes rather than taking on new learners. An early assessment report published by the CIPD in January revealed almost half (46 per cent) of employers were encouraged to use levy funds to support existing employees, while consultancy giant Deloitte was accused of rebadging almost half of its 2017 graduate intake as Level Seven apprentices. 

“Our research showed a lot of employers are looking for ways to reclaim money by changing existing programmes into apprenticeships, which is legal – but one study by Ofsted also made the worrying suggestion that a significant minority of apprentices didn’t even realise they were on apprenticeships,” said Lizzie Crowley, skills policy advisor at the CIPD. 

“There was a history of this behaviour under the last apprenticeships system, and now concerns raised at the onset of the levy, around rapidly expanding a system where there were underlying weaknesses with the quality of the training, are coming home to roost.” 

In a speech to the Conservative party conference on Monday, Philip Hammond pledged to engage with businesses over longer term plans for the levy – “to ensure that every young person can fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams”. But apprentices who attended the conference suggested their choice of career path had left them “swimming against the tide”. 

The Education and Skills Funding Agency did not respond to People Management’s request for comment.