6% of apprenticeship providers eligible for ‘ludicrous’ expert group

Leaders hit out at DfE's 'dangerous' pilot name and strict criteria that excludes most providers

Leaders hit out at DfE's 'dangerous' pilot name and strict criteria that excludes most providers

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Apprenticeship chiefs have lashed out over the government’s “ludicrous” hunt to appoint “expert” training providers, after FE Week analysis revealed only six per cent are eligible to apply.

Just 90 of the 1,420 apprenticeship providers in England meet the strict criteria set by the Department for Education for its 12-month pilot announced this week.

DfE is searching for 15 providers to take on a “mark of excellence”, which will give those selected “more access” to DfE systems in a bid to reduce the time, resource and cost that providers commit to coaching non-levy paying employers through the digital apprenticeship system.

But, leaders have criticised the extreme criteria they need to meet to apply, as well as the “dangerous” title of “expert” providers.

To be considered, providers must have a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating, an apprenticeship achievement rate of at least 51 per cent in 2021/22, as well as a four-star employer feedback rating.

It also requires providers to deliver at least 30 per cent (and a minimum of 50 annual starts) of its overall apprenticeships provision to small and medium-sized employers (SMEs) and have been providing apprenticeships for at least five years.

This criterion has eliminated most of the 1,420 apprenticeship providers in England from participating, including some of the largest, such as Lifetime Training, Kaplan Financial, BPP Professional and JTL.

Just 90 providers tick all the above conditions, comprising 71 independent training providers and 17 FE colleges. Just one higher education institution makes the cut, despite DfE plans to make three of the 15 “expert” providers HEIs.

The pool may be even smaller as the guidance states providers must also be in “good” financial health and must not have been sanctioned by the DfE following an audit or investigation in the past five years – requirements that FE Week could not analyse.

One leading provider, which did not want to be named, said: “The word ‘simplicity’ simply doesn’t exist in the DfE’s dictionary.

“The stipulation of being judged Ofsted good or better should be sufficient. Instead, the department is also asking interested providers if they have four out of four stars for employer feedback which will result in perfectly good candidates being eliminated at the first hurdle. Ludicrous.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “This small pilot is deliberately targeted at training providers with a track record of delivering high-quality apprenticeships. 

“By enabling expert providers to act on behalf of SME employers, time and resources will be saved, SMEs will be better supported to deliver their apprenticeships, and the system will become more efficient. 

“We will use the learnings from the pilot to develop and implement a wider expert provider status from August 2024.”

One of the largest providers of SME apprenticeships, HIT Training, is ineligible for the pilot as it had a 36.1 per cent achievement rate, according to 2021/22 performance tables. But, managing director Jill Whittaker said she “absolutely will be applying”.

She told FE Week: “Our current achievement rates have significantly improved since 2021/22, we’re over 51 per cent this year.

“Given that HIT is one of the largest providers that work with SMEs, we have been a good provider for 17 years and we have excellent feedback as rated by employers, to exclude us because of achievement rates from a year ago would be quite ridiculous and foolish.”

The DfE’s guidance does say the pilot is designed to be a “light-touch process”, but it makes clear providers “must be able to respond positively” to all the listed criteria.

‘We suggested they think about a better phrase’

Several providers have criticised the title of “expert” for the scheme.

Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said he advised DfE to change the name. “[We] suggested they think about a better phrase because this pilot is really about expertise in administration rather than expertise in delivery.”

Another boss of a large provider excluded from the pilot said: “I’m not sure I agree with the ‘expert’ title, it’s more an advisory panel. It’s very dangerous using the term if down the line the provider runs into trouble with Ofsted, for example.”

Whittaker added: “It’s a bit of a cheeky name because it implies if you’re not on the list you’re not an expert. That is a bit of a worry.”

Another provider boss said: “The conferring of a ‘quality mark’ on these expert providers would be wholly inappropriate if such a kitemark and new group were not also established for providers more focused on the levy-paying market.”

The guidance outlines that providers’ expert status will be revoked if they receive any downgrades in Ofsted ratings, the emergence of a safeguarding issue, the termination of an apprenticeship contract, or if they become the subject of a DfE investigation.

DfE is looking to fill seven of the 15 slots with independent training providers, appoint five places to FE colleges and three to higher education providers to “be reflective of current market share”.

The guidance document stressed that the pilot will not include any further funding, but successful providers could see a growth in starts and cost efficiencies from being involved.

Chosen providers will also get “priority engagement opportunities” with DfE officials through workshops and roundtables.

Association of Employment and Learning Provider director of strategy Paul Warner said the membership body has been “working closely” with the DfE on this new expert apprenticeship pilot programme which has the “potential to be a real step forward”.

He added that the focus on improving efficiency and simplification is “obviously good” but there are a “couple of areas we will need to keep an eye on including the new ‘quality mark’ or if these criteria start to be used in procurements processes”.

The pilot programme is planned to start from October 31 this year. DfE needs responses by September 27 and applicants will be told if they are successful or not from October 16. There will be no route to appeal.

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3 Comments

  1. I can only echo the comments above. Our ompany is a small, specialist engineering apprenticeship provider that is Ofsted outstanding, has an achievement rate of 89.5%, has an excellent financial rating, and a 4 star employer satisfaction rate, but we don’t meet the minimum SME starts criterion (we more than meet every other criterion). So apparently we can’t be described as ‘expert”…..this latest initiative (like a long line of similar initiatives) is barking mad. The DfE and ESFA are still apparently fixated on the idea that private providers have to be of a minimum size (just look back at the AEB saga). Of course that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they have significantly rationalised the staff that they used to employ to support the skills market. And much good this approach has done anyway, with increasing numbers of providers, large and small, voting with their feet, and leaving the funded training market to pursue more sustainable training opportunities.

  2. Like it is

    Employer review star ratings can mislead for a few reasons. Providers have different proportions of levy v non levy. Non levy employers have a much harder time with the Apprenticeship service, which spills over when they review providers. Reviews can be left before an apprentice has successfully completed, but can be updated afterwards, this balance will be different between levy versus non levy.

    Achievement rates can be misleading. 50% can be high in some occupations because of high workforce churn and may not be the fault of the provider. 60% can be low in other more stable highly paid occupations and be mostly the fault of the provider.

    Size can be misleading. Under 50 starts could still exclude specialists who deliver almost all of a particular standard, to an excellent standard. Or, you could have an excellent 1000 start provider with 299 non levy starts, excluded. Whereas your could have a mediocre 51 start provider with 17 non levy who gets included.

    In short, many of the elements are potentially misleading on their own, a combination of those elements still has the potential to be misleading. It’s easy to see why providers are critical of this.

    It’s a divisive approach to what is, in effect, an attempt to iron out some administrative wrinkles with the Apprenticeship Service. The reason for labelling it ‘expert’ appears to be purely a means to create incentives to avoid having to pay providers to take on the additional work.

  3. Rob Smith

    IMO the DFE would have been better circulating a survey to all providers asking for suggestions on different apprenticeship issues and then sifting through the responses e.g. get micros off the App Service or introduce App Service access for providers right from the off for non-levy paying employers. There are a million issues in the current Apprenticeship set up and providers are at the coal face managing these are professionally as possible in the vast majority of cases. Use the knowledge across the industry as opposed to a handful of providers.