Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has launched a scathing attack on the FE and skills sector, branding success rates among colleges as “palpable nonsense”.

Speaking at Westminster’s Church House on Thursday, he reissued his call — originally made at the time of the education watchdog’s annual report in November — for the government to “shine a spotlight” on the sector.

“Vocational and skills-based training has not been good for many years because successive governments have not shone a bright enough spotlight on it,” he said.

“Once again, these young people have remained in the shadows.

“I was critical of the FE and skills sector in my annual report and questioned whether the ‘system was fit for purpose’. We face an apparent paradox.

“Too few young people reach 19 with the qualifications they need for employment. Yet so-called ‘success rates’ in colleges have been very high.

“This is palpable nonsense. It has arisen because providers have focused on the volume of qualifications and not on the real needs of individual learners and employers.

“This unacceptable situation has been reinforced by the perverse incentives of post-16 funding streams.”

Sir Michael went on to say he was “encouraged” by the government’s response to his annual report. He welcomed the government’s Rigour and Responsiveness paper as setting a “new welcome tone of high expectations and rapid intervention to support all FE and skills providers to be good”.

“It also promised to take more rapid action where failure or inadequacy is identified,” he said.

In a speech entitled Unseen Children, Sir Michael described the creation of the FE Commissioner’s post as an “important position in an increasingly complex post-16 landscape”.

Sir Michael went on to outline three recommendations for the sector within a package of eight across the wider education system.

He said: “The government should be more prepared to dismantle inadequate colleges that have grown too large to assure quality across their different activities.

“Smaller specialist units, including University Technology Colleges, should be created with stronger links to business, commerce and industry.”

He added: “The number of apprentices is increasing, but mainly for the over-25 age group. The focus now needs to be on the younger age group — 16 to 19-year-olds — who would benefit from a rigorous level three apprenticeship over at least a two or three-year period.

“My seventh recommendation, therefore, is that the Richard Review should be fully implemented. It provides a sound basis on which to reform and grow this system.”

His final recommendation was for all post-16 providers to report on the rate of progress and outcomes for all young people who had previously been eligible for free school meals.


Editorial: New incentives needed

Sir Michael Wilshaw is dishing out dirt on the FE and skills sector.

But he needs to understand that a share of that dirt must also land on him.

He is right to point at funding incentives as being behind the growth in the number of qualifications and success rates.

But he should also acknowledge that his inspectors have themselves relied heavily on success rates in the process of coming to their conclusions.

Ofsted, under its new common inspection framework, appears to be getting better at using alternative performance measures, and interestingly provider grades appear on average to be improving.

But the FE sector still lacks a national performance regime, or related funding incentives, for positive destinations.

In fact, astonishingly, even the new traineeships scheme lacks a financial reward for progression into work.

The government needs to put a financial bonus on each and every positive learner destination.

Only then will the sector be set free from the qualification sweatshop.

Nick Linford, editor of FE Week