The inspectorate for the quality of apprenticeships is concerned young people “aiming to step onto the career ladder are discovering that the vital bottom rungs simply do not exist”, explains Ofsted’s deputy director for further education and skills, Paul Joyce

The snap general election called late last year resulted in a delayed publication of our annual report, subsequently delivered a fortnight ago on 21 January 2020.

A perhaps serendipitous upshot is that the report was published just before the UK’s departure from the EU, and just before National Apprenticeship week, which began 3 February.

The critical 16-19 age-group needs to be better catered for

In our report we urged the government to identify where current skills shortages lie and to set out plans for how the country can best meet this demand.

It is not just the government but also the further education and skills sector who must play a part by offering courses and apprenticeships that give students relevant qualifications in new and expanding industries, both in their locality and across England.

Since the funding reforms of 2017 and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, there has been a sharp increase in the number of apprenticeship providers, but questions remain over the quality of some courses provided to learners.

Further, despite the increase in providers, the number of apprentices continues to fall.

In 2019 there were about 1,900 further education & skills providers, an increase of 63 per cent since 2017. Within this total, the number of independent learning providers (ILPs) – who offer the majority of apprenticeships in England – has grown from about 500 to more than 1,200.

However, the proportion of ILPs judged good or outstanding declined during this period and for the third year in succession. Furthermore, one in five of new apprenticeship providers that received monitoring visits in 2018/19 were making insufficient progress in one or more areas.

Worryingly we have found too many training providers unclear on the purpose of an apprenticeship. In some cases, apprentices did not receive adequate off-the-job training, which resulted in many making slow progress on their apprenticeship and not developing the substantial new knowledge and skills that they and their employers needed.

In the worst cases, employees did not even know they were on an apprenticeship programme.

An additional concern is that the number of apprentices aged 16 to 18 at levels 2 and 3 is decreasing.

In 2016/17 most apprenticeships were at level 2. Since then there has been a decline in the number of these apprenticeships each year. At the same time the number of higher-level apprenticeships has doubled in the past two years.

These higher-level apprenticeships are overwhelmingly in business administration and are often a substitute for a degree. Very few are in areas such as construction, engineering and manufacturing.

There is much to celebrate in a system that values higher-level vocational and occupational achievement, where apprentices can progress from one level to the next and where apprenticeships are a key part of economic regeneration and skills development.

Apprenticeships can be transformational for young people.

However, we find little evidence apprentices are actually moving up the levels.

The trend towards higher level apprenticeships limits the options available for young people who leave school without a full level 2 qualification. There is a real danger that young people aiming to step onto the career ladder are discovering that the vital bottom rungs simply do not exist.

The mismatch in provision and demand urgently needs to be dealt with while discussions about future national productivity continue. And the apprenticeship funding system needs to target levy money more directly at skills shortage areas.

The government and providers must look at what can be done to redress the balance across apprenticeships.

The critical 16-19 age-group needs to be better catered for and action must be taken to reverse the decline in school leavers taking up apprenticeships.

Employers play a vital role and apprenticeship reforms have put employers in the driving seat in terms of developing the new standards. It’s time to see if the reforms are doing what the policy intended.

If apprentices are not doing the right courses, we need to look again at the role employers are playing and ask what else we can do to align the system better to the needs of the economy.