A new leadership and management training provider that quickly recruited over 600 apprentices is considering legal action against a grade four Ofsted report.
The Opportunity Group was given an ‘inadequate’ rating by the inspectorate in its first full inspection since the company started providing apprenticeships in September 2018.
In a report published on Saturday, Ofsted criticised the provider for putting adults on to unsuitable apprenticeships – an issue that has led to large numbers of apprentices dropping out and too many who are significantly beyond their planned end date.
The watchdog also found that in too many cases, apprentices do not receive sufficient time to complete their apprenticeship in their working hours and do not attend off-the-job training.
The Opportunity Group currently has 626 apprentices mostly on leadership and management programmes at level 3 and above – nearly triple the number it had during an early monitoring visit from Ofsted in early 2020.
Co-founder Kate Temple-Brown told FE Week she was disappointed Ofsted’s report and will potentially dispute the ‘inadequate’ judgement legally because it is likely that her company will now be banned from delivering apprenticeships in line with government funding rules.
She claimed the main reason for the grade four – large numbers of apprenticeship dropping out and beyond their planned end date – was as a result of delivering apprenticeships throughout the pandemic.
She said one of her firm’s largest employers was a school whose teachers “were in turmoil and unable to focus on completing their apprenticeship”.
“Chief inspector Amanda Spielman mentioned in her apprenticeship conference speech that Ofsted should make allowances for COVID in their inspections but our inspectors did not,” Temple-Brown added.
“We complained about this lack of consistency in treatment and other process issues as well as the behaviour of the inspectors both in respect of our learners and our staff. None of our complaints were upheld.”
Temple-Brown said her company also questioned the “occupational competency” of Ofsted’s inspection team to “understand the population we work with, predominantly existing employees in leadership roles and in professional services environments”.
“We are taking legal advice while we consider our options,” she added.
It comes weeks after another apprenticeship provider, Quest Vocational Training Ltd (QVT), had a government-enforced suspension on new starts lifted by the High Court while the firm battles Ofsted through a judicial review to overturn an ‘inadequate’ judgment.
QVT is also arguing that Ofsted placed a “disproportionate emphasis on matters which were beyond our control through the pandemic” – such as a lack of off-the-job training in the care sector.
The Opportunity Group’s early monitoring visit report resulted in ‘reasonable progress’ judgements across the board. At this point it had 249 apprentices.
After boosting this number to over 625 in the following two years, major concerns over the retention of apprentices were found by inspectors. Ofsted said that not enough was being done to ensure the suitability of the apprenticeship for each individual, instead the provider enrolled everyone who was put forward by their employers.
Inspectors said that leaders and managers do not ensure that apprentices have a clear understanding about the content of the apprenticeship that they are studying.
Apprentices also too often think that the additional qualification contained within the programme “is the most important aspect of their apprenticeship”.
Large numbers of apprentices dropping out before completing their programme is a huge problem for the sector which is currently being investigated by ministers. Government data shows that nearly half of all apprentices on the new-style standards dropped out in 2020/21 and more than half did so the year before.
Ofsted also reported said that too many apprentices at The Opportunity Group do not attend off-the-job training and, as a result, make very slow progress in developing their knowledge, skills and behaviours.
Meanwhile, facilitators too often “do not know how many apprentices should attend their sessions”.
Ofsted also claimed that leaders do not take effective action to ensure that staff meet the needs of apprentices with learning difficulties and/or disabilities.
“Too many of these apprentices do not receive appropriate support to enable them to complete their course by the planned end date,” the report said.
Inspectors recognised that leaders have recently appointed a new manager to assess and support these apprentices, but it is “too early to identify any discernible impact”.