Education recovery in FE: Ofsted reveals key findings from autumn 2021 inspections

Providers' finances have suffered, apprentices have been unable to take exams and staff are facing ever-increasing workloads

Providers' finances have suffered, apprentices have been unable to take exams and staff are facing ever-increasing workloads


Recruitment struggles are leading to “difficult” financial positions, students are “frustrated” with delays to assessments and suffer from practical skills deficits, Ofsted has found this term.

According to the watchdog’s new report Education recovery in further education and skill providers: autumn, safeguarding concerns have also doubled in some cases and there are multiple instances of high staff turnover.

The report is based on 39 inspections of FE and skills providers between 1 and 19 November 2021. Findings from monitoring visits and prison inspections were not included.

This comes after Ofsted released findings from a series of interim visits to FE and skills providers last year, which also showed providers facing financial pressures and learners’ mental health deteriorating due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here are six key findings from the Ofsted research published today…

1. Providers under ‘growing financial pressures’

Inspectors reported recruiting apprentices had proven “particularly challenging” for providers.

Apprentice numbers were lower than in previous years, the report highlighted, after government figures published in October showed starts fell by almost a fifth between 2018/19 and 2020/21.

While providers had scrabbled together alternatives, with one running short courses to make up for low uptake on a level 5 apprenticeship, other providers have not been able to and face “difficult financial positions”.

The report highlights one, unnamed provider which had limited its intake of apprentices as employers were unable to offer placements and they were focused on training existing staff during the pandemic.

Many apprentices were still on breaks in learning at the time of the inspections, though a proportion had returned to training.

Several providers reported attrition from programmes, due to the pressures of remote learning, lack of face-to-face assessments, changes in employment and limited time for learning.

Apprenticeship programmes at some providers were made “vulnerable to closure,” the report says, due to reduced learner numbers.

2. Delays in assessments a ‘source of frustration’

That learners were still facing delays in taking their assessments was a “source of frustration” for both learners and staff.

Delays have been blamed on the assessments not having been reinstated and providers having to say learners were not ready for examination as they had missed out on learning.

But staff had taken the initiative by setting up facilities on campus so exams could go ahead in better ventilated areas where learners could socially distance.

Test centres were also contacted to secure cancelled slots and the format of assessments were changed, such as by combining exams with coursework and utilising feedback from trainers.

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education recently announced a swathe of flexibilities for apprenticeship assessment would continue into the next year, owing to the Omicron variant.

3. ‘Significant deficit’ of work placements created gaps in learning

As Covid-19 reduced opportunities for placements and furlough, learners could not engage with practical elements of their programmes, “key components” of FE and skills qualifications, the report notes.

Many providers cited this lack of engagement as “a significant deficit during the pandemic,” which had created gaps in students’ learning.

Apprentices were given individual support by providers in practical workshops to develop skills and “skills checks” were introduced to ensure learners had the necessary skills to progress.

A number of providers were repeating parts of programmes to ensure learners could progress with the right level of skill and knowledge, including by revisiting elements which had been taught online once face-to-face tuition resumed.

Where learners had been absent for long periods during the pandemic, providers gave extensions and allowed students to repeat elements of their study.

This helped those who had been furloughed complete practical workshops.

One provider was picked out by the report for giving learners the opportunity to join other cohorts after breaks in learning.

But inspectors found evidence of learning loss in other areas of the curriculum, including English and maths, due to coronavirus.

Enrichment activities such as CV writing and interview support, had yet to come back by the time of the inspections.

Providers have also made use of the 16 to 19 tuition fund, announced by the government in summer 2020, to increase staff hours and run individual and small-group catch-up sessions.

4. Safeguarding concerns ‘double’, including around sexual abuse

One provider told inspectors how the number of safeguarding concerns had doubled in comparison to last year, as lockdown ended.

This was not confined to mental health concerns either, as self-harm and sexual abuse were also raised.

Much like during the interim visits last year, Ofsted reports providers continuing to report an increase in poor mental health and wellbeing concerns among learners.

The transition out of lockdown and back to face-to-face learning had caused some learners anxiety, due to having to return to a physical setting and commute.

To support mental health and wellbeing, some providers adapted their curriculum to focus on the topics more, teaching students how to manage stress, improve confidence and reduce anxiety.

There were also existing strategies in place to support learners, such as engagement with external agencies, mental health first aid and communication through newsletters and apps.

One provider was credited for using online wellbeing courses, running mindfulness sessions, and offering the option of working from home to support staff.

5. Pandemic piled the work on staff

Workload on some staff had increased due to the pandemic, the report notes, echoing another finding from its interim visits last year.

This was blamed by providers on a backlog of work and the need to support learners catch-up on education.

The additional demands on staff to support learners during Covid-19 had hurt staff’s mental health, providers also noted.

Inspectors found “a few instances of high staff turnover,” particularly felt in careers information, advice and guidance teams.

Having staff redeployed during the pandemic was given as one possible reason for these staff dropping out.

6. Attendance ‘disrupted’ by the pandemic

Attendance “continued to be disrupted by the pandemic,” the report says, partly due to staff and students having to self-isolate.

While courses continued remotely where they were unable to be delivered face-to-face, providers found learners’ motivation for their programme “dwindled” during the pandemic, due to the shift to remote learning and students’ having to balance study with other commitments such as childcare.

Re-engaging them had been “challenging,” the report notes, though a focus on retention by some providers “had resulted in some providers seeing excellent attendance and learners being eager to engage as the provider moved back to face-to-face learning”.

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