Providers could be left in no new business limbo for years after Ofsted apprenticeship monitoring visit

Apprenticeship providers could be forced to stop recruiting students for several years, if judged to be making ‘insufficient progress’ in early monitoring visits from Ofsted, FE Week can reveal.

Earlier this month the Education and Skills Funding Agency confirmed that any poor-performing provider with the rating in at least one of the themes under review will be barred from taking on any new apprentices – either directly or through a subcontracting arrangement.

These restrictions will remain in place until the provider has received a full inspection and been awarded at least a grade three for its apprenticeship provision.

But when asked by FE Week how soon after a monitoring visit a new provider can expect a full inspection, Ofsted revealed it will be sticking to the rules in its existing handbook which state it will be within three years of starting their first apprentice.

“As set out in our handbook, Ofsted normally inspects new providers with a full inspection within three years of their first receiving funding,” a spokesperson said.

“Clearly, the outcome from any monitoring visit will be taken into consideration when planning the subsequent full inspection, including when it takes place.”

The news will ring alarm bells for new apprenticeship providers subject to the early monitoring visits, as their whole business will effectively be put on hold until Ofsted grants them a full inspection and ups their grade if they receive ‘insufficient progress’ in any of the themes.

AELP chief policy officer Simon Ashworth said: “We definitely need greater clarity on what happens next whether it’s a future monitoring visit or a full inspection where the provider has to get at least a grade three.

“An absence of transparency over timing does appear to leave providers in limbo although the importance of good quality provision for learners must be our topmost priority.”

Providers judged to be making ‘insufficient progress’ in the monitoring visits will be able to continue to work with existing apprentices, but must tell the employers, and any lead providers, about the monitoring visit outcome as well as pausing recruitment.

The ESFA can only overrule this guidance if it “identifies an exceptional extenuating circumstance”.

FE Week reported in May that Ofsted was set to be given these new powers – along with up to £7 million more cash to visit every new apprenticeship provider.

When asked whether all new providers with starts can now expect a monitoring visit, the spokesperson for the watchdog said it had not decided on this yet.

“In November 2017, HMCI announced that Ofsted would carry out monitoring visits to a sample of new providers,” she said.

“We are working closely with the DfE to assess what we can learn from these visits.”

Ofsted’s new powers follow an education select committee hearing at which skills minister Anne Milton admitted it wasn’t clear who was accountable for quality at these new providers.

There was surprise at the mixed messages from the ESFA, which recently permitted a provider to recruit apprentices once more – just two months after Ofsted branded its provision “not fit for purpose”.