When the ESFA published the list of providers on the apprenticeship register in March 2017 we reported that the entire sector was shocked.
Hundreds of companies, many never having filed a set of accounts, had successfully applied to a register that would give them unlimited access to apprenticeship funding.
In an interview with me the same month, Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of Ofsted, expressed obvious concern.
Now, 18 months later and after some new providers have been found “not fit for purpose”, the Department for Education has accepted Ofsted’s plea for more cash and ponied up £5.4m until 2020.
The money will be spent on monitoring visits to all new providers, followed by a full inspection within 12 months where insufficient progress has been found.
This is excellent news and shows a genuine commitment from the government to put quality above quantity.
However, it still leaves a series of important unanswered questions, and the National Audit Office is currently looking again into whether the DfE is “ensuring that the programme and levy system are not abused by stakeholders.”
The NAO’s follow-up review is due for publication in early 2019, so here are four questions they might want to ask the DfE:
- What will the early monitoring arrangements be for providers delivering levels 6 and 7? When we asked the Office for Students and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education they seemed less than sure.
- Why do apprenticeship providers have unlimited access to levy funding? This allowed one employer to recruit 650 apprentices before their Ofsted early monitoring visit exposed serious failings. Surely those with no track record should be limited until their quality is proven?
- The provider register has officially been shut to entrants since last October and the rumour is the new version won’t be open this month as promised. So what is the plan to introduce quality thresholds and potentially remove some through a reapplication process?
- Now Ofsted has received much needed additional resource, what about the ESFA in terms of what’s needed to manage the fallout from their “market entry” policies? For example, many apprentices will need to be found new providers as part of their “market exit” intervention support.
The way the provider register was set up was deeply flawed, but with a well-resourced Ofsted and some sensible ESFA changes, things can only get better.