WorldSkills UK national finals 2023

Welcome to this special souvenir supplement bringing you the full results and insights from the 2023 WorldSkills UK national finals in Greater Manchester.

The finals showcase the pinnacle of technical skills among UK students and apprentices, but there’s a lot more to skills competitions than winning medals.

Find out why Greater Manchester was the perfect host city region for this year’s finals, how learning from abroad is raising technical training standards at home, and get the very latest on how WorldSkills UK’s Centre of Excellence programme is transforming teacher CPD.

AoC 16-18 recruitment survey ‘reveals major concerns among college leaders’

Half of colleges have seen a drop in enrolment figures, with the blame partly placed on the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

A survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) of 182 colleges shows 49 per cent are reporting falling numbers of 16-19-year-olds, compared to last year.

It also shows a national drop of 0.1 per cent, the first time in 15 to 20 years the figure has fallen, with 46 colleges reporting a dip between five to 15 per cent.

Colleges believe unaffordable transport, combined with the abolition of the EMA and increased competition for student numbers among school and college sixth forms, have been the main causes for a decline.

The survey is further evidence supporting the findings from two surveys – conducted by Lsect – and published in FE Week. The first showed that 105 colleges forecast an initial total shortfall of 20,319 students for this academic year.

Key AoC survey findings:

  • Half of the 182 colleges that responded are seeing a drop in 16-19 students, with 46 colleges reporting a significant dip of between five per cent to 15 per cent
  • Of those reporting a decline, colleges say the end of EMAs for students in the first year of the course, competition from other providers, lack of affordable transport and cuts in funding per student were the main factors
  • A decline in Level 1 courses (pre-GSCE and basic skills) was reported by 41 per cent of respondents
  • 51 per cent of colleges said that their student numbers have increased or remained stable
  • 60 per cent of colleges reported a drop in transport spending by their local authority
  • Over half of all colleges are ‘topping up’ Government bursary funding with their own contributions and the same proportion are spending more on subsidising transport this year than last
  • 79 per cent of colleges agreeing that free meals in colleges for 16-18 year olds (currently not available, unlike in schools) would encourage participation.

Fiona McMillan, president of the AoC and principal of Bridgwater College in Somerset, said that at her own college EMA provided students with about £1,000 per year. Now, there is only £152 per year available for students.

She said: “We are all aware that funding is tight. But these young people are our future and we must consider our investment in them.

“We would all regret a situation where young people miss out and then become the so-called lost generation.”

Ms McMillan said the new 16-19 bursary, which replaced the EMA, is “better than nothing” but in terms of what it provides, “there is a big gap”. To cope, her college – like many others – has subsidised the cost.

She is also concerned colleges will miss out on vital funding, adding: “We are paid by our student numbers. So it’s an important issue for us.”

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said some of the changes could be due to demographics – with a drop of 40,000 in the 16-18 age group. He added: “It is a complex picture. The decline in college enrolment by students on Level 1 courses may be partially explained by improvements in school teaching.

“What is clear is a significant number of member colleges are concerned that financial constraints are preventing students from pursuing preferred courses at their institution of choice and there is a risk of vulnerable groups becoming disengaged from education.”

Andy Forbes, principal at Hertford Regional College, said they are “about five per cent down” on 16-18 enrolment from last year.

He said: “We’re now projecting a figure of just under 2,600 against our target of 2,719.

“We have experienced a particular decline in Level 2 enrolments and at the furthest reaches of our catchment area, which stretches quite a long way.”

Mr Forbes believes there are two factors to blame, adding: “The withdrawal of EMA and the cost of transport from the two ends of our catchment.

“We were not helped by late arrival of concrete information on what funding we had to compensate for loss of EMA and how we could use that funding, which made it difficult to put financial support in place for students and publicise them effectively.”

He also said colleges need to work harder to get the message across about the “exceptional quality of provision” they offer, in the face of “growing competition from schools” expanding sixth forms by offering vocational courses.

He added: “The decline of independent careers advice isn’t helping young people make good choices at 16 and we in FE are going to have to be a lot more active in ensuring school pupils and parents are made positively aware of the alternatives to staying on at school.”

However, the Department for Education spokesman (DfE) said there are “record numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds” in education or training.

He said: “There has been a massive increase in apprenticeships for anyone over 16 to learn a specific trade – 360,000 places in all available in more than 200 careers.

“And we are strengthening vocational education so young people will have high-quality courses open to them which are valued by employers.”

The spokesman also said: “We are targeting financial support at students who need it most to get through their studies – through the new £180m a year bursary fund, with further transitional support available for those students who were already drawing the EMA.”

Gordon Marsden, Shadow FE and Skills Minister, said the “alarming figures” show the impact of the government’s policy to scrap EMA. He said: “The government has left FE colleges facing a double whammy at a time of real economic uncertainty.

“Not only are college finances jeopardised by falling enrolment numbers, but they face the strain of having to try and address the post EMA funding gap, putting extra administrative burdens on them at a time where they claim to be setting them free.

“The government needs to get a grip urgently with a strategy that will help, rather than hinder, FE colleges in addressing young people’s employment and skills needs.”

AoC said they will repeat the enrolment survey in September 2012.

Click here to download the study and here to download the AoC press release.

Jo Grady re-elected as UCU general secretary

Jo Grady has been re-elected to serve a second term as general secretary of the University and Colleges Union (UCU).

Grady won in the in the third round of voting. King’s College London law professor Ewan McGaughey narrowly missed out on the top job, losing by just 182 votes.

17,131 valid votes were cast out of 114,310 eligible UCU member voters – a turnout of just 15.1 per cent. Grady was elected with 7,758 votes to McGaughey’s 7,576.

University of Leeds widening participation officer Vicky Blake came third and Liverpool John Moores University senior education lecturer Saira Weiner came in last.

Grady, a former employment relations lecturer at the University of Sheffield, said: “I want to thank every member who has voted to endorse my strategy for our union’s future.

“We have achieved so much in the past five years, including further education’s biggest pay award in a decade and the greatest pension win in UK trade union history.

“But there is still much to do. Under my leadership, UCU will continue to be a fighting union that will stand up for education. We need a fair funding settlement for higher education and binding national bargaining in further education. I look forward to working with our incredible members to push employers and government to invest in our sector’s staff and students.”

Grady has committed to push for “enforceable” national deals on pay and terms and conditions in further education colleges. She has also pledged to strengthen UCU branches in colleges and prison education and “tackle casualisation” in adult education.

Her second term begins officially on August 1.

The remaining election results, for vice-president, national executive committee and trustee are expected to be announced on March 5.

Picket lines with FE members

UCU members at numerous colleges across the country have been striking in the last year, most recently last month at Capital City College Group about pay disputes and workload.

Grady at The Manchester College

Grady said at the time she “need[s] to be on picket lines with our further education members”, and that “our members need, and they deserve my full attention”.

Colleges have accepted pay deals of up to 10 per cent for teaching staff for the 2023/24 academic year. It comes after the Association of Colleges advised colleges to use the government’s £200 million of 16-19 funding to award a 6.5 per cent pay rise to FE staff, the same as schoolteachers.

The union has faced internal disputes recently, with UCU staff escalating a row over pay with bosses.

And last year Grady agreed a £22,000 settlement in a legal dispute over potentially libellous tweets.

UCU review into racism

The union today has also accepted an independent review of racism at UCU.

In a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, the Unite Black members’ group pointed out “institutional failings” are affecting UCU staff.

Unite, who represent UCU staff, found that Black staff are disproportionately targeted for punitive action under internal procedures – 45 per cent of all UCU cases handled by Unite had an element of race discrimination.

“Firstly, it is Black staff who have to engage on a daily basis with the senior management team who have overseen the aforementioned failings,” said Unite UCU.

“Secondly, the exclusion of staff from an independent investigation called into question of the employer’s public response to the racism crisis.”

Relax functional skills rules for autistic apprentices, says ex-minister

A former cabinet minister has called on the government to help autistic people into work by relaxing apprenticeship functional skills requirements.

Ex-justice minister Sir Robert Buckland published a review this week containing 19 “practically achievable” recommendations for getting more autistic young people into work.

Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures suggest that about seven in ten people with autism are out of work, compared to five in ten for all disabled people.

Buckland is calling on the government to give apprentices with autism an exemption from the need for higher level functional skills by self-declaring their special needs.

He said many autistic people “struggle” to complete level three or higher level apprenticeships due to the requirement for level two qualifications in English and maths.

Under current rules, people with learning difficulties have an option to complete entry level three functional skills instead.

However, this option requires the apprentice to have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), which Buckland said are “difficult to obtain”.

Demand for EHCPs, which are carried out by local authorities, increased by a fifth to 114,500 between 2021 and 2022, with only about half of assessments completed within the 20-week target for completion.

Buckland believes his recommendations, which also include raising awareness of autism with careers advice services and recruiters, would make a “radical improvement” to the low employment rates.

The former minister, who has long campaigned on issues around children with special needs, said employers are “missing out” on skills that autistic people could be contributing.

He cited DWP figures that suggest only 30 per cent of people with autism are in employment, significantly lower than the overall disabled people’s employment rate of 53 per cent.

Charity Autistica, which supported the review, estimates that about one million autistic people are living in the UK.

In April, the Department for Education (DfE) is due to reach the end of a pilot that tested a similar relaxation of functional skills requirements to Buckland’s recommendation.

Around 20 providers in the pilot have been allowed to give people with autism who lack an EHCP or Learning Disabilities Assessment (LDA) an exemption from functional skills requirements following an assessment by a special educational needs and/or disabilities coordinators (SENDCOs).

Last November, some providers in the pilot told FE Week they were enrolling hundreds more people with learning difficulties thanks to the exemption.

Ali Khan, managing director of ELA Training Services in London, said: “Whether functional skills are fit for purpose or not, providers have had to set challenging benchmarks for applicants to achieve during their initial assessment so that we are not setting up apprentices to fail.”

Buckland said the outcome of this pilot should be used to “determine the next steps” – including a possible change to the funding rules.

He has also recommended the government set up a task force to oversee the implementation of his recommendations, chaired by a “respected independent person” who would represent the needs of autistic people.

Functional skills qualifications have also been described as a barrier to progress for apprentices without disabilities due to their difficulty and the cost of delivery to providers.

Writing in FE Week last year, Paul Warner, director of strategy and business development at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) said functional skills qualifications “no longer serve the purpose” that they were designed for.

Buckland’s review publication comes after the government’s “Back to Work Plan,” launched with the Autumn budget statement in November last year, which aims to help up to 110,000 unemployed people with mental or physical health conditions into work.

The DfE was approached for comment.

‘Groundbreaking’ GCSE maths resit trial gets cash injection

A “groundbreaking” study that indicated radical progress in GCSE maths resit results has received a cash boost to expand its research.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has committed £630,575 for researchers to test new teaching approaches for college learners resitting the subject – the second largest donation ever made for a post-16 education project by the charity.

The funding will allow 160 extra teachers from FE colleges across the country to partake in the effectiveness of the Mastering Maths trial.

The research is hoped to provide a much-needed boost to maths resits pass rates, which recently fell to 22.9 per cent last year.

Since 2014, colleges have been required to help learners achieve a grade 4 or above when retaking their GCSEs or risk losing funding.

From next year, maths resit students must study the subject for a minimum of four hours per week under controversial new rules.

The Mastering Maths study is carried out by the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Research in Mathematics Education and the independent evaluation will be led by the National Centre for Social Research.

The initial pilot found students being taught by teachers on the Mastering Maths professional development programme made one month of additional progress compared with their peers, and disadvantaged students made even more gains.

Students who were from disadvantaged backgrounds, i.e. eligible for free school meals, made two additional months of learning progress.

The pilot project took place across 147 college sites and 7,453 students between October 2021 and June 2022.

It investigated three levels of intervention – placebo, partial and full which involved teachers working with lesson resources and engaging in two days of face-to-face CPD run by a lead teacher on the fundamentals of the study that should be embedded within maths teaching.

Full intervention features seven lessons using methods learned from the online sessions as well as a programme of “lesson study” which saw groups of teachers come together five times across the year and observe one of the group teaching a class, before discussing the lesson afterwards.

This time, the trial will entail an intervention group and a control (placebo) group for the 2024/25 academic year.

Researchers say the effectiveness trial will be looking for answers to why disadvantaged learners made more progress than their peers.

“We can only guess, but the research will do a little bit more to try and work that out,” said Geoff Wake, Professor of Mathematics Education at Nottingham University.

“We’re doing less telling, more engaging students try to work things out in a way that’s appropriate for them. That’s the design in the intervention and I think that’s made a huge difference,” he added.

The study is recruiting FE teachers from across England and have until June 21 to sign up.

Colleges will also receive £250 to cover the participating teachers’ classes for each lesson study meeting (£1,250 for five meetings). Additionally, each college setting in the control group will receive a thank-you payment of £1,000 for the collection of student data.

To be eligible, teachers must teach at least one GCSE maths class and should not have participated in the Mastering Maths efficacy trial as either a lead teacher or intervention teacher. They should also not be taking part in the NCETM Teaching for Mastery “trailblazer”, “cohort one” cohorts, or any other substantial professional development during the 2024/25 academic year.

The EEF has made funding available for post-16 education research previously, the largest of which was a £641,115 boost to Maths for Life, a maths resit study in 2018.

Earlier last year, the prime minister made a pledge of £40m to the EEF to expand its focus to post-16, plus £60m over two years to improve maths education.

The EEF is also currently involved in the Association of Colleges’ study of the 5Rs (recall, routine, revise, repeat, ready) teaching approach to GCSE maths resits, funded through DfE’s accelerator fund. Results of this study are expected this autumn.

Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, said: “We know that this period offers our ‘last chance’ to minimise socio-economic attainment gaps before most young people leave the education system. We also know how important it is for future life chances to achieve a good level of maths. “It is our hope that further trials will offer post-16 educators high-quality options to consider when looking to make meaningful changes to their classroom practice.”

Mayor’s masterclass: Brabin backs college VAT exemption

Students at Leeds City College were treated to an acting masterclass from former Eastenders actor turned mayor Tracy Brabin this week.

In a special visit for this year’s Colleges Week, which concludes today, Labour West Yorkshire mayor Brabin also backed calls on the chancellor to exempt colleges from VAT in next week’s budget.

The group of 32 first-year acting students were “put through their paces” interpreting a script, written by Brabin, as well as hearing industry insights from the mayor.

Student Noemi Kubiak said: “Tracy gave us some really good career advice on how to support yourself as an actor in between roles. She said to use our creative skills to branch out into writing, which isn’t something I’d ever considered before.”

Creative industries on the patch are “booming” according to Brabin, “with productions like Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack showcasing our region to the world.

“I’m thrilled we’re giving young people the opportunities they need to upskill and flourish, as we work to build a stronger, brighter West Yorkshire,” she said.

Abolishing requirements for colleges to pay VAT has been a headline ask from the Association of Colleges for several years and would save the sector around £200 million per year. Schools do not pay VAT.

The chancellor Jeremy Hunt is widely expected to use next week’s budget to cut taxes, but his Treasury predecessors have all declined to exempt colleges from VAT.

Ministers have previously rejected the call, saying the £200 million it would cost to exempt colleges from VAT is better spent elsewhere.

Brabin said: “At a crucial time for learning and development, college students deserve to have all the resources they need to thrive.

“That’s why we’re backing calls to even the playing field for colleges and reinvest vital funds back into the system.”

Photos: Leeds City College

New Ofsted chief had ‘outdated’ view of apprenticeships as school head

Ofsted’s new chief inspector admitted he was “completely wrong” about the quality of apprenticeships as a school leader, during his first public appearance in post at this week’s FE Week Annual Apprenticeships Conference.

In a Q&A session from the main stage, Sir Martyn Oliver spoke about his experience as a school leader in trying to offer independent advice to his students about apprenticeship options.

“I had a massively outdated view of apprenticeships. I was completely wrong in just how good they are,” the chief inspector said.

When asked why, despite the Baker clause, providers still report barriers to accessing schools to promote apprenticeships, Oliver said schools can struggle “finding the time” to offer “anything beyond” the curriculum.

Reflecting on his time as a school leader, Oliver said: “It was no good just giving careers advice internally. What you needed was an expert who was up to date in apprenticeships.

“I developed this contract with an external partner who came in and I was really happy for this person to say to all of my young people, even if I’ve got a sixth form, don’t to go the sixth form, go to that training provider, go to that sixth form, go to that college, whatever would work for them.”

Oliver also revealed his much-trailed “big listen” exercise will launch “a week on Friday”, on March 8. He is booked to deliver a keynote speech at the Association of School and College Leaders annual conference in Liverpool that day.

“I’m about to embark on a big listen where I’ll be hopefully listening to all of you and, really critically, the young people and adults who are taking your courses, and finding out from them what it is we best do to support and challenge and make sure standards are as high as possible.”

He would not be drawn on specific changes he wanted to make to the education inspection framework, but did say he wanted more training provider leaders to take part in Ofsted inspector training.

Oliver said he chose the AAC to be his first public engagement as chief inspector because “apprenticeships are a real engine for social mobility”.

He attended the Birmingham conference this week following a visit to Blackpool and The Fylde College where he spoke to staff and apprentices. 

“I have seen incredible practice and met fantastic young people that are a real credit to the qualification, and to this country, in what they’re trying to achieve,” he said.

DfE set to surrender £60m apprenticeship cash in 2023-24

The Department for Education is set to hand back £60 million of apprenticeship funding to the Treasury in 2023-24, new figures show.

Of the department’s £2.585 billion ring-fenced apprenticeship budget this financial year, £2.525 billion, or 98 per cent, is expected to be spent.

The figures, released this week in the Treasury’s supplementary estimates, would mark a slight drop in the underspend recorded in 2022-23, when £96 million, or four per cent, of England’s ring-fenced apprenticeships budget went unused.

The budget is set to rise to £2.7 billion from 2024-25. However, the disparity in what is distributed by the Treasury for public spending on apprenticeships compared to how much the levy is generating continues to grow.

Latest Treasury figures show £3.170 billion was received from employers who pay the apprenticeship levy between April 2023 and January 2024, with two months’ worth of receipts to come before the end of the financial year. 

A recent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast predicted that total apprenticeship levy intake to HMRC will reach £3.9 billion in 2023-24.

When DfE’s ring-fenced budget spend on apprenticeships in England is combined with the £500 million-odd that is handed to the devolved nations from the levy, it leaves around £875 million that was generated by the levy, but held onto by the Treasury in 2023-24.

The DfE said final underspend figures for 2023-24 will be released later this year.

A DfE spokesperson added: “The apprenticeship levy has enabled us to increase investment in apprenticeships to £2.7 billion a year by 2024-25 – supporting employers of all sizes and in all sectors offer more apprenticeships. Over the last two years, 98 per cent of the budget was spent helping thousands of businesses take on apprentices.

“Spending on the apprenticeship programme is demand led, offering employers the flexibility to choose which apprenticeships they offer, how many and when. We are making it easier for employers and providers to offer high-quality apprenticeships by simplifying our systems, cutting red tape, and have removed the limit on the number of apprentices SME’s can recruit.”

Multiply underspend revealed

Treasury’s supplementary estimates also show that £14 million of the DfE’s budget for the prime minister’s flagship maths programme Multiply is to be returned to Treasury in 2023-24.

Councils attacked the inflexible funding rules of the maths programme last year after figures revealed that a third of the money allocated went unspent.

The DfE said most of the £14 million surrendered to Treasury, £9 million, was from financial year 2022-23, confirmed when local areas submitted their final statements of grant expenditure and driven by the short delivery timeframe in the first year of Multiply.  

The other £5 million was returned to Treasury from a randomised control trial (RCT) budget, given that “many” trials will not commence until academic year 2024/25 and the time needed to design and mobilise RCTs, according to the DfE.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Multiply has enabled thousands of adults to undertake courses designed to boost number confidence, while giving local areas the flexibility to offer a range of innovative programmes to suit their communities.”

Front bench rivals clash in Colleges Week debate

A Westminster debate about colleges descended into a “party political” row about apprenticeships before an almost empty room this afternoon.

Only five MPs spoke at a debate to mark this year’s Colleges Week in Westminster Hall on Thursday, leaving its proposer Peter Aldous feeling a “shade disappointed” about attendance.

However, a clash flared up between the government’s schools minister Damian Hinds and Labour’s shadow skills minister Seema Malhotra over the opposition party’s proposals on apprenticeships.

Both said they wanted to avoid “party political debate” before engaging in a tetchy back-and-forth on the future of the apprenticeship levy.

Malhotra – the only opposition MP to speak – repeated her party’s pledge to convert the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible “growth and skills levy”, which would allow 50 per cent of funds to be spent on other forms of training, alongside creating a new strategic body, Skills England.

She suggested the schools minister “did not fully understand” her policy, possibly because he had not “engaged with it in detail”.

But Hinds hit back that any “misunderstanding” about Labour’s levy proposal was “because it is not clear” itself.

He said: “I assure the honourable lady that if there is any misunderstanding about the Labour party policy it is not because people have failed to engage with it, it is because it is not clear. One great benefit of the current system is that it is clear.

“I must tell her that the approach of the levy resolves one of the fundamental questions in investing in human capital and training and investment, which is the so-called free rider problem. The levy is precisely to make sure that the whole of the industry has a like-for-like investment in skills and policy. I would urge her not to replace it with a new and unneeded quango.”

Malhotra criticised the government for overseeing falling apprenticeship starts, cutting further education funding and falling engagement with apprenticeships from small and medium-sized businesses.

She said changing levy spending rules would give employers “flexibility” to spend on modular training, which could also reduce the number of apprenticeship drop-outs.

The shadow minister added: “An estimated £3 billion in unspent levy has gone to the Treasury since 2019 that could have been spent on more training opportunities for learning.

“This is not a system that’s working as it needs to be.”

Hinds argued that the opposition’s plans would mean “less money” for apprenticeships and create “a new and unneeded quango”.

Aldous concluded the debate by calling for an urgent review of the apprenticeship levy to resolve “teething difficulties” before the next general election.

He also urged the government to “level the playing field” for colleges by fixing the pay gap with school teachers and exempting colleges from paying VAT.

AELP reveals new board members as vice-chair stands down

Sue Pittock and Chris Claydon have been elected to serve on the Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ board.

The appointments of Pittock, who leads Remit Training, and Claydon (pictured right), who runs JTL Training, were announced following the trade body’s annual general meeting this afternoon.

It was also announced that AELP vice-chair Rob Foulston (pictured left) will be standing down from the board following Pittock’s appointment.

Foulston is owner of Remit and even though has been on the board since 2018 in his capacity as a college chair of governors, AELP’s updated constitution prevents two people from representing the same organisation on the board “directly or indirectly”.

An AELP spokesperson said arrangements to fill the vice-chair vacancy will be announced “in due course and we hope Rob will be able to continue to support us in an advisory capacity in future”.

This will be Pittock’s second time on the AELP board, having previously served from 2017 to 2019.

Pittock, who was made an OBE last year, will represent medium-sized training providers that have 1,001 to 4,999 learners.

Claydon, who became JTL chief in February 2023, will represent large providers with 5,000 learners or more.

Both will serve a four-year term on the AELP board. 

Ben Rowland, AELP chief executive, said: “I’m delighted that we will have two new members joining the AELP board imminently. Both Sue and Chris have a huge amount of experience and will give us some fresh impetus at a crucial time for the skills sector. I would like to thank Rob in particular for his work on the board, and his support for me as I continue to get my feet under the AELP table. 

“The AGM is also a time to set out my priorities for the year. These will be to create a vibrant and compelling membership experience while delivering tangible impact on government decisions, and I am looking forward to working closely with the AELP board and staff to help deliver that for our members.”

AELP chair Nichola Hay added: “I want to give a huge welcome to our new board members Sue Pittock and Chris Claydon. With Sue and Chris joining the board, I am sure AELP can do even more to represent its members across the skills sector. I would also like to pay tribute to Rob Foulston who will be stepping down from the board. He’s been an invaluable source of support as both a board member and as AELP’s vice-chair.”

Driving apprenticeships success requires someone new at the wheel

I am at risk of offering platitudes by stating employers play a crucial role in the success of apprenticeships. Their ability to be either custodian or antagonist of quality is profound. When we talk about their role, the emphasis often sways towards the policy expectation that places them in the ‘driving seat’ of programme design. Yet in my experience, employers (except those with their own contract) are at their most impactful when sitting in the training provider’s passenger seat during programme delivery.

Research from The St Martin’s Group backs up the outcome of low involvement. Unsurprisingly, it shows the most common reason apprentices cite for leaving their programme as lack of employer support.

‘Support’ manifests in different ways: giving apprentices time off the job to learn, actively participating in progress reviews, challenging training provider practices when left wanting, noticing when apprentices are overwhelmed or demotivated, encouraging achievement of functional skills, giving formative feedback, and appreciating why careers guidance really isavaluable part of an apprenticeship. 

Ensuring this jigsaw pieces together requires a relationship between employer and provider that is multifaceted and dynamic. It’s more like rally driving than F1: it needs a driver and a co-pilot in the car – and employers make better co-pilots.

Successfully managing this relationship demands the dedication and expertise of delivery staff, whose responsibilities extend beyond just their apprentices. It is not uncommon for their duties to include guiding a line manager on providing constructive feedback or confidently holding them accountable when they fail to meet the needs of their apprentice.

Leaders who cultivate these skills within their teams understand the pivotal role they play in the success of an apprenticeship. This is because the employer’s commitment, which is crucial if we are to reduce withdrawals or delays beyond the planned end date, needs much more than just a signature at the outset.

Employer commitment needs much more than a signature at the outset

As an SME ourselves, we have noticed a shift in expectation and demand on our time. We respond to this in accordance with our values and will continue to do so, but it would be wrong to understate the effort it takes by us and the providers we work with each year to make it work in practice.

Whatever comes for FE on the other side of an election, the direction of travel for active employer participation is unlikely to be reversed and nor should it. We have experienced first-hand the significant impact our team has on developing T Level placement students and are proud of the role we play in creating meaningful apprenticeships.

Yet in truth, we have experienced mixed fortunes when it comes to the effectiveness of how well we partner with providers, with challenges on both sides. What we have noticed is the Ofsted grade has not always been a useful proxy for our experience and I am left curious as to why that is the case.

‘Employers’ are referred to just once in the inspection framework under the ‘quality of education’ aspect, highlighted under ‘Intent’. Further detail appears under the apprenticeship section but I am unconvinced that this is keeping up with a sector where employers are increasingly integral to implementation.

My aim here is not to create more work for providers; rather, it is to ensure there is regulatory recognition for the effort needed to build and manage complex relationships with diverse employers beyond the design stage.

Ofsted is a powerful voice in a system that struggles to access the funding to match the political narrative that technical education is Very Important. It is a voice that I hope can demonstrate through its thematic research that if we want FE to be successful, there are hidden costs and capabilities involved. And I hope it is a voice that will be heard by new ministers from the outset of their tenure, because big turns in the road will need to be navigated, and that’s best done with our eyes wide open.