A think tank run by a former government skills adviser has called for a new apprenticeship inspectorate to be formed to clamp down on poor quality training that is leading to half of apprentices dropping out.
In a radical report that claims tens of thousands of apprentices are not receiving their minimum entitlements to training, EDSK director Tom Richmond has called on the government to take direct action against those employers and training providers who are “letting down their apprentices”.
He also said there is a widespread “lack of genuine training” that has become so prevalent that one in ten apprentices are “not aware that they are on an apprenticeship”.
But provider chiefs say the report, called ‘no train, no gain’, paints a picture of the apprenticeship system that is “simply not true or one the sector will recognise”.
EDSK’s report aims to assess the state of the apprenticeship landscape 10 years on from the coalition-government commissioned Richard Review.
It said that while there were “many excellent apprenticeships available” it had “no choice but to conclude that the quality of apprenticeships in England remains a serious problem”.
The report, penned by Richmond and Eleanor Regan, has called for a new “national apprenticeship inspectorate” to be formed, with the role of carrying out inspections instead of Ofsted, and responsibilities to manage the register of apprenticeship training providers.
It said that a new body would enable the scope of inspections to be widened to include regulation of the on-the-job training that an apprentice may receive from their employer which is currently “not subject to any formal quality assurance”.
This new inspectorate would also be able to make more timely and frequent inspections, of at least once every three years regardless of the provider’s grade, after noting that “frequency and scale of [Ofsted] inspections for new and existing provision” can be too slow because it is essentially determined by government which sets Ofsted’s budget.
The report said this new body would, in effect, be created by “spinning out Ofsted’s current apprenticeship inspection duties and then expanding its remit and responsibilities”.
Richmond and Regan propose that the national apprenticeship inspectorate should have a budget of £60 million a year – three times what Ofsted is able to spend on all further education and skills inspections.
Elsewhere, their report said that some low-quality and low-skilled roles rebadged as apprenticeships were “just as prominent today as they were in 2012” with some apprenticeships offering training that could be learned in a few weeks.
The report continued that, while allowed in the funding rules, allowing homework tasks and online learning as training went against what the Richard Review wanted to see.
EDSK referenced IFF Research’s evaluation of apprenticeships in 2021 which said that one in five of more than 5,000 apprentices surveyed were not even aware of the 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement, and less than half (46 per cent) achieved the minimum amount of off-the-job hours.
In addition, it said that it was “concerning and regrettable” that many apprentices were only given limited information about their training programme before starting, explaining that the lack of curriculum for standards gave apprentices “no point of reference for what training they should be receiving”.
Around one in twenty apprentices were unaware they were on an apprenticeship, according to IFF research, while Department for Education data indicated that more than two thirds of those who dropped out cited quality of the course as a reason.
The report called on the government to “publicly restate its commitment to the Richard Review’s definition of what constitutes a high-quality apprenticeship” and any apprenticeship that does not meet this definition should be “immediately banned from accepting new apprenticeship starts and fully withdrawn by 2024”.
It also said employers should be required to produce a “training curriculum for each apprenticeship standard from 2024 onwards”. Every training curriculum should have to demonstrate that it meets at least 300-hours of off-the-job training each year, and a minimum 200 hours of the 300 must be delivered face-to-face.
But Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said the report “tried to paint a picture of the apprenticeship system which is simply not true or one the sector will recognise”.
She said Ofsted remained the correct body for regulation and said the 300,000 starts last year indicated a “strong appetite from employers” for apprenticeships.
She added: “Simply identifying a few weak vacancies posting as a proxy for quality of lower-level apprenticeships is wholly inappropriate.
“The suggestion of remote training being poor quality is totally misinformed and any sort of arbitrary cap goes against the principle of an employed-led system. This would jeopardise the bespoke and innovative programmes that are co-designed by employers and providers.”
EDSK director Tom Richmond said there were “many excellent apprenticeships available in this country” but added: “So long as the government is content for watching webinars and doing homework to be counted as ‘training’ then there is little hope of improving the experience for current and future apprentices.
“The only wat to eradicate poor provision and substandard training within the apprenticeship system is for the government to now set a much higher bar for what constitutes ‘quality’, as well as doing a better job of protecting apprentices from malpractice and exploitation.”
Minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, Robert Halfon, said apprenticeships “continue to deliver great outcomes”.
He added: “Our reforms have made apprenticeships more rigorous, with more training and they now properly reflect the needs of employers, with high satisfaction rates and 92 per cent of apprentices securing sustained work or further training.
“We know there is more to do to ensure all apprentices get a great experience, which is why we’re introducing a suite of reforms to boost quality. This includes refreshing our register of training providers and strengthening provider accountability, Ofsted will inspect all apprenticeship training providers by 2025, and we have launched a new feedback service for apprentices.”