Ofsted will be handed powers to inspect skills bootcamps next year, after a review of the flagship short course scheme found inconsistent quality of training and poor oversight.
The Department for Education has agreed for the watchdog to incorporate visits to providers of the 12-to-16-week courses into its regular inspection of further education and skills providers, beginning in April 2023.
The news follows the publication of a report by Ofsted this morning, which assessed wave two of the skills bootcamp programme which ran from July 2021 to March this year.
The report, commissioned by the DfE to understand how well bootcamps were delivering the skills training intended, said that most providers “organised the curriculum appropriately and used learning resources and materials of a high quality”.
However, Ofsted identified that “the quality of teaching was not consistently high and assessment practise was often weak”.
“Too many providers did not carry out rigorous initial assessments,” it added.
Worryingly, Ofsted also found that “too often” leaders were not ensuring learners had their guaranteed job interview – one of the biggest selling points of the course – because “they have not developed good enough relationships with employers”.
Elsewhere, programmes designed to be delivered wholly online with limited support from teachers resulted in a “poor experience” for many learners.
Skills bootcamps are flexible courses designed for adults to train in careers in areas of national skills shortage, such as construction, manufacturing and digital. The bootcamps, based around levels 3 to 5, also guarantee an interview with an employer.
They were first announced in September 2020 as a key pillar of the government’s national skills fund.
There were 36 providers of the second wave of bootcamps, 14 of which were sampled for Ofsted’s report.
Almost £50 million has already been spent on the scheme and the DfE has set a target of 16,000 people to start and complete the courses in 2021/22.
Over half a billion pounds has been committed for skills bootcamps from 2022 to 2025. Wave three commenced in September 2022.
The bootcamps can be delivered by various organisations, including FE colleges, private companies, independent learning providers, local enterprise partnerships, higher education establishments and local authorities.
They are also able to subcontract delivery of the programmes if they wish – a point raised by Ofsted which said that “too often the prime contractors do not maintain sufficient oversight of subcontractors’ and supply partners’ activity”.
That included checking the design of courses, how curriculum content was determined and liaison with employers.
In addition, it noted that while retention of learners was high, and some courses had proved popular, others – such as construction and engineering – had not hit recruitment targets.
Data for those recruitment targets was not provided, but the DfE’s aim is for 75 per cent of learners to secure a new job.
The DfE originally ruled that Ofsted was not needed to inspect skills bootcamp provision because the department monitors performance throughout the contract duration, and the providers have to provide evidence that training will be high quality for their bid to be successful.
Chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “These courses provide good opportunities for adults to learn new skills in sectors vital to our economy, but it is important that all courses are of high quality and that they lead to jobs.
“I welcome the DfE’s agreement for Ofsted to inspect skills bootcamps as part of our regular inspections. This will support the government’s approach to tackling skills shortages in England by ensuring that learners and employers benefit from well-planned and effective programmes.”
Skills, apprenticeships and higher education minister Robert Halfon said: “We welcome the findings of this report, which highlight the significant progress made to deliver high quality skills bootcamp courses, extending the ladder of opportunity to adults across the country.
“These free, flexible courses have supported thousands of people to gain in-demand skills and boost their earning potential, which is why we are now including them in Ofsted’s inspection remit to ensure the programme continues to deliver top notch training.”
As part of its recommendations, Ofsted has tasked the DfE with setting out expectations on addressing areas of concern, and how providers can develop relationships with employers, although it is not clear what those expectations may be.
It also asks the DfE to take “appropriate measures” to ensure providers guarantee good quality provision from subcontractors.
Ofsted has confirmed that the inspections coming in from April next year will be for all providers of skills bootcamps – even if they are currently outside of Ofsted inspections currently because they do not deliver any other government-funded education.
A spokesperson said those would be new providers.
A DfE spokesperson refused to say whether it would terminate contracts or suspend starts for providers rated ‘inadequate’ in a full inspection or ‘insufficient progress’ in a monitoring report.
But the department said its contracts with providers “set out the actions we will take, and the contracts include provision for performance improvement plans where appropriate”.
Paul Joyce, deputy director for FE and skills at Ofsted, said there could be some “logistical challenges” to inspecting bootcamps because of the short nature of those courses.
He said: “There is nothing better than inspecting when the course is running and we will endeavour to do that wherever we can. But the nature of those short courses may mean that some of the inspection activity is not first-hand observing these bootcamps.”
Bootcamp providers not registered with Ofsted that FE Week spoke to were not concerned about the prospect of inspectors visiting, saying they would help with transparency and accountability, as well as ensuring people know the training is of the highest standard.
Kate Burnett, general manager at DMA Talent from the Data & Marketing Association, which has been delivering digital marketing strategy bootcamps since September, said: “We do respect the decision to introduce Ofsted to this. They are publicly funded courses and I think it is really important that the standards are held at the highest level, otherwise faith
disappears in the concept of a bootcamp at all.”
Burnett added it was important for Ofsted to work with bootcamps providers ahead of inspections, such as providing inspection information at the contract tender stage.
A spokesperson from The Developer Academy, another digital bootcamp provider yet to be registered with Ofsted, said: “It’s not something we are concerned about. We have highly qualified and experienced ex-teachers and heads of education departments as instructors who train all of our instructors how to teach.”