Skills Minister Nick Boles (pictured above) addressed concerns about how the quality of apprenticeships will be policed as the government drives towards its target of creating 3m apprenticeship by 2020.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) raised the possibility, in its consultation on the proposed large employers’ apprenticeship levy set to be introduced in 2017, of allowing employers to use providers that are not subject to an approval system or even Ofsted inspections.
It sparked concern that quality might be sacrificed for quantity as the government tries to meet its manifesto pledge to create 3m apprenticeship starts over the next five years.
Yet Mr Boles appeared to pre-empt any decisions over how training standards might be maintained, before BIS published its response to the consultation submissions, at the Conservative Party Conference on Tuesday (October 6).
Speaking at a fringe event hosted by Sky News reporter Adam Boulton, Mr Boles said: “You will have to spend your apprenticeship levy money with a registered training provider who is on the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) register and Ofsted will have a continuing role in inspecting those registered training providers.
“I don’t intend to change that at all, I think it’s an incredibly important reassurance for everybody.”
He added: “I think they [Ofsted] have a crucial role to play [in maintaining apprenticeship standards] and while we are going to put a huge amount of emphasis on employers being the police force, as it were, of their own apprenticeships in their own sectors, that doesn’t in any way remove Ofsted from the process.”
Mr Boles also looked forward to a time when employers would be so committed to apprenticeship Trailblazer standards, expected to fully replace the current system of frameworks come 2017/18, that they would root out any organisations undermining the brand.
He said: “What I want is for all of the employers affected to be really annoyed that one of their competitors is undermining the brand and the quality and reputation of the apprenticeship that they created and are investing in and to kick them out.
“I think that in addition to Ofsted will actually produce results.”
The apprenticeship levy consultation asked respondents whether they thought providers that receive levy funding should “have to be registered and/or be subject to some form of approval or inspection”.
Meanwhile, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote last year in his annual report on FE and skills for 2013/14 that the “quality of apprenticeships is still not good enough”.
Mr Boles spoke out at the Tory conference on the issue after Shadow Skills Minister Gordon Marsden warned in FE Week this month against a “Soviet-style five-year plan simply churning out numbers at the expense of quality and progression”.
He said he was “especially concerned” that success rates for apprentices aged 19 and above fell by almost six percentage points, from 74.3 per cent in 2011/12 to 68.4per cent in 2013/14.
The same national success rates table, reported by FE Week in April, showed that overall apprenticeship success rates had fallen by nearly 5 percentage points, from 73.8 per in 2011/12 to 68.9 per cent in 2013/14.
Meanwhile, FE Week reported last month that the government had rejected calls to stop employers running in-house ‘apprenticeships’ of less than 12 months, despite a 12-month minimum duration being a key element for ensuring quality for publicly-funded apprenticeships.
The SFA has also said that it will not publish achievement rates for the new apprenticeship standards in the national success rate tables, and that apprenticeship standards will not be included in minimum standards for 2015 to 2016.
The SFA has also opted to keep the minimum standard threshold for apprenticeship success rates at 55 per cent for 2014/15 — although it has said it is “intending” to raise that threshold to 62 per cent for 2015/16.
Ofsted declined to comment on Mr Boles’s plans for the education watchdog under Trailblazers.