Ofsted has downgraded a new provider following a surprise follow-up visit after the Education and Skills Funding Agency tipped the watchdog off about alleged illegal apprentice wages.
The case, believed to be the first time the inspectorate has policed apprentice pay, has raised questions about which government arm is responsible for audits. The membership body for private providers has called for clarity on this “inconsistent” approach.
London-based charity Uganda Community Relief Association (UCRA) is challenging Ofsted after its monitoring visit report resulted in ‘insufficient progress’ judgments in two areas – an outcome that has led to a suspension on new starts.
The watchdog claimed the provider’s 27 junior content producer apprentices “are not in suitable employment, are not paid an apprenticeship wage and too many do not receive monthly pay”.
However, the provider claims an original monitoring visit took place in early December that resulted in ‘reasonable progress’ provisional judgments across the board, and involved no questions about apprentice pay.
UCRA told FE Week that Ofsted returned to re-inspect the provider unexpectedly, with a different inspection team, in mid-January at the request of the ESFA after the draft report was shared with the agency.
The ESFA began conducting its own investigation into the provider in November after one of its employers submitted a request for apprenticeship incentive payments in which financial information was shared.
UCRA told FE Week the employer in question, which has been denied the cash incentives, was unable to pay its employees, including the apprentices, in October following a downturn. But this issue has since been resolved and all payments have been made, UCRA claimed.
The provider also denies that the apprentices are paid anything less than the apprenticeship minimum wage and insists evidence of this has been shared with the ESFA and Ofsted.
“This is a very confusing and frustrating situation,” an UCRA spokesperson said. “Ofsted was very happy with what they saw during their first inspection in December – the feedback was so good it blows your mind. They spoke to the learners and were so impressed.”
The spokesperson questioned why Ofsted was made to effectively audit their provider – a job that typically lies with the ESFA.
“Is this Ofsted’s writing or is it the ESFA’s? They are supposed to be two separate bodies. The ESFA audits, not Ofsted,” they said.
“I am 100 per cent sure apprentices are paid the minimum wage because I have seen their payslips and have given them to the ESFA.
“Ofsted looks at the quality of education, not apprentices’ payslips. This is the ESFA talking.”
Apprentice pay is not an issue that Ofsted usually reports on, and nowhere in the inspection handbook does it say this source of information could be used during inspections.
But a spokesperson for the watchdog told FE Week that inspectors do not rule out “the different sources of evidence we might need to gather at different times to carry out an inspection effectively”.
They added that any concerns from providers should be raised through Ofsted’s complaints process.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers said it was not aware of Ofsted auditing apprentice pay before and called for a more consistent approach.
Director of policy Simon Ashworth said: “AELP strongly believes in provider accountability. There must be strong measures in place to protect and safeguard the interests of apprentices, regardless of how any concerns are raised. We would, however, ask that a consistent approach is taken, so that in future providers understand what the respective responsibilities of ESFA and Ofsted are.”
The ESFA said it would not comment on individual cases.
UCRA, established in 1984, has previous experience of providing training as a subcontractor. It also offers a range of other services to the community, including immigration advice and casework and guidance on how to operate a foodbank.
The charity began teaching its own apprenticeships to adults in August 2020 and has been delivering adult education courses since January 2021. It currently has 32 adult learners, as well as 21 traineeship students. All training is taught online.
Ofsted’s report is full of praise for all of the provider’s courses, barring the junior content apprentices.
Of the four judgments, two were judged as ‘reasonable progress’ in the final report.
“Leaders and managers have a clear rationale for the curriculum they offer,” Ofsted said, for example.
UCRA told FE Week it is now challenging the report and wants to stay in the apprenticeship delivery market despite this setback.