The drop in the percentage of training providers rate good by Ofsted is a direct consequence of the government’s sloppy approach to approving new providers, says Mark Dawe

Now that the cat is out of the bag on the true state of levy funding, it is very useful to have Ofsted’s input on where the apprenticeship reforms should go from here. 

As the 3 million starts target disappears into the ether, we should be asking – in the context of the somewhat phoney “quality over quantity” debate – to what extent the quality of provision is being enhanced by the reforms.

There is general agreement that the introduction of standards has been a very positive development – with the proviso that they are appropriately funded at all levels, especially in key sectors post-Brexit.  So in her annual report, the chief inspector is right to air concerns over the fall in apprenticeship opportunities for 16- to 18-year-olds and at level 2, because the funding changes have made it extremely challenging to deliver high quality apprenticeships for those groups of learners. 

The fact that nearly four out of five independent training providers (ITPs) are still delivering good or outstanding provision, is testament to how hard they have worked to meet the higher expectations required by the standards, and how well they have responded to the individual demands of employers, many of whom are new to the apprenticeship programme.

The percentage (78%) of grade 1 and 2 ITPs has slipped a little this year, but this is a direct result of dogma being given priority over common sense in taking forward the reforms. 

This led to the government being far too loose in its approach

Previous DfE ministers were very keen to open up the apprenticeship market to new providers and this led to the government being far too loose in its approach to establishing the register of apprenticeship training providers. We have ended up with a third of those on the register still not delivering a single apprenticeship after 12 months, and the Ofsted annual report now reveals that of the 42 providers found to be requiring improvement or inadequate this year, 30 were new ITPs. It’s easy then, if still disappointing, to explain the slippage overall.

The register’s refresh, which starts on 12 December, offers the opportunity to sort things out.  AELP understands that providers and employers will now have to prove they have actively traded for 12 months, are financially stable, skilled and are able to deliver quality apprenticeship training, before they apply, rather than when they begin delivery.

At the same time, we expect that providers with an outstanding or good grade from Ofsted will be exempt from certain questions on the leadership and management of their delivery. 

The end result should be that as well as no more opportunistic new entrants, we will say goodbye to those providers who are still not delivering apprenticeships and have never shown any intention of doing so. The hope is that we will then have an approved list of good quality providers ready for all employers to confidently choose from. 

This is obviously very important for when the non-levy employers start joining the digital apprenticeship service from next August. Knowing that any provider on the register is of officially recognised quality should give all employers some assurance, which in turn should allow the ESFA to essentially run an employer demand-driven system, rather than act as queen bee over how much contract growth each provider gets.

Ofsted is pleased that the amount of subcontracting throughout the sector is decreasing, but continues to find poor practice as well as good. Successful arrangements rest mostly on good management on the part of the lead contractor, and this results from having a good governance structure in place, such as the one set out in our best practice code published with support from FETL earlier this year.

The chief inspector has expressed her doubts about the wisdom of the government continuing with its compulsory GCSE resits policy for English and maths. With the aid of an initial assessment, young people should have the choice to do functional skills instead, but ministers can’t expect good provision, often undertaken one-to-one in the workplace, to continue at half the classroom funding rate.