AoC and AELP bosses battle over independent provider quality

The bosses of FE’s two biggest associations have traded verbal blows over the quality of apprenticeships that are delivered by private training providers.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, has claimed that independent providers offer apprentices “not very much” training, mostly assessing them “on the job”.

But his comments sparked a war of words with Mark Dawe, boss of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, who challenged the AoC chief to “produce the evidence” to back up his allegation.

Mr Hughes’ criticism of independent training providers was made during an interview with FE Week in which he defended colleges’ poor take-up of apprenticeships over the past year.

The former skills minister Nick Boles had challenged colleges to stop letting private providers “nick your lunch” at the 2015 AoC annual conference – something that the figures show they haven’t really managed.

Pressed on why some colleges haven’t been expanding their apprenticeship provision ahead of the levy, Mr Hughes said: “Colleges are big organisations and there’s always going to be a degree of cautiousness about suddenly shifting your business into new areas.

“If you’re an independent provider and you’re doing most of that work assessment on the job, there’s a lot of evidence that many apprentices get no-off-the job training, even at level four and five, even at degree-level apprenticeships. It’s much easier to suddenly switch your business and grow your business and get big numbers.”

Mr Dawe hit back at Mr Hughes, labelling his claim “disappointing and plain wrong”.

He told FE Week: “I challenge David to produce the evidence he refers to, given that Ofsted believes that 79 per cent of independent provider provision is good or outstanding, and the latest FE Choices and CBI data shows that by far the average highest satisfaction ratings among employers and learners are for independent providers.

“Is he really saying that an apprentice has to leave the employer’s premises to get access to the necessary facilities and kit?

“Off-the-job training for the technical certificate, and improving English and maths, can and does frequently takes place in training rooms on site or at the provider’s facilities.

“David may be inferring, and it may be the case that many colleges are not suited to certain types of delivery.

“Therefore they should focus on what they are good at rather than trying to turn everything into classroom education.”

Just days after the exchange, the left-leaning think-tank IPPR called on the government to phase out level two apprenticeships for 16- to 18-year-olds, and replace them with a programme only offered by colleges.

It is also likely that the government’s skills plan will favour colleges if classroom-based facilities are required to deliver its 15 new technical professional education routes.

“AELP has nearly 50 college members, some of which are very large, who offer high quality work-based learning and I would be surprised if many of them agreed with David,” added Mr Dawe.

“I am puzzled why the size of an institution should prevent it from entering the apprenticeship market – it is all about willingness to seize the opportunities that the levy offers and getting better at employer engagement.”