Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has launched a scathing attack on the FE and skills sector, branding success rates among colleges as “palpable nonsense”.

Speaking at Westminster’s Church House on Thursday, he reissued his call — originally made at the time of the education watchdog’s annual report in November — for the government to “shine a spotlight” on the sector.

“Vocational and skills-based training has not been good for many years because successive governments have not shone a bright enough spotlight on it,” he said.

“Once again, these young people have remained in the shadows.

“I was critical of the FE and skills sector in my annual report and questioned whether the ‘system was fit for purpose’. We face an apparent paradox.

“Too few young people reach 19 with the qualifications they need for employment. Yet so-called ‘success rates’ in colleges have been very high.

“This is palpable nonsense. It has arisen because providers have focused on the volume of qualifications and not on the real needs of individual learners and employers.

“This unacceptable situation has been reinforced by the perverse incentives of post-16 funding streams.”

Sir Michael went on to say he was “encouraged” by the government’s response to his annual report. He welcomed the government’s Rigour and Responsiveness paper as setting a “new welcome tone of high expectations and rapid intervention to support all FE and skills providers to be good”.

“It also promised to take more rapid action where failure or inadequacy is identified,” he said.

In a speech entitled Unseen Children, Sir Michael described the creation of the FE Commissioner’s post as an “important position in an increasingly complex post-16 landscape”.

Sir Michael went on to outline three recommendations for the sector within a package of eight across the wider education system.

He said: “The government should be more prepared to dismantle inadequate colleges that have grown too large to assure quality across their different activities.

“Smaller specialist units, including University Technology Colleges, should be created with stronger links to business, commerce and industry.”

He added: “The number of apprentices is increasing, but mainly for the over-25 age group. The focus now needs to be on the younger age group — 16 to 19-year-olds — who would benefit from a rigorous level three apprenticeship over at least a two or three-year period.

“My seventh recommendation, therefore, is that the Richard Review should be fully implemented. It provides a sound basis on which to reform and grow this system.”

His final recommendation was for all post-16 providers to report on the rate of progress and outcomes for all young people who had previously been eligible for free school meals.


Editorial: New incentives needed

Sir Michael Wilshaw is dishing out dirt on the FE and skills sector.

But he needs to understand that a share of that dirt must also land on him.

He is right to point at funding incentives as being behind the growth in the number of qualifications and success rates.

But he should also acknowledge that his inspectors have themselves relied heavily on success rates in the process of coming to their conclusions.

Ofsted, under its new common inspection framework, appears to be getting better at using alternative performance measures, and interestingly provider grades appear on average to be improving.

But the FE sector still lacks a national performance regime, or related funding incentives, for positive destinations.

In fact, astonishingly, even the new traineeships scheme lacks a financial reward for progression into work.

The government needs to put a financial bonus on each and every positive learner destination.

Only then will the sector be set free from the qualification sweatshop.

Nick Linford, editor of FE Week

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  1. We need some consistency here!!! On one side, “success” rates, or lack of success rates are the basis of a story with Adrian Bailey on the offensive, and here we have Nick correctly pointing out the need for a re-focus away from success rates. Completion rates are not just a reflection of the training provider but of a complex set of circumstances. Just as school league tables tell a partial story, so do success rates. If I choose to work with hard to reach young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in an unglamorous sector. and my success rate is under 50%, and up the road is another provider working with ambitious and motivated kids from solid backgrounds in say IT, and his success rate is 80%, does that make him better than me?

    • Eugene Greco

      Whilst I take the point about the “difficult and challenging” work that leads to success rates under 50%, this leads to a question about quality, leadership and management and the financial viability of the right level of support to meet people’s needs so that they can be successful.
      It can be argued that if providers have got quality and leadership and management right then all learners should be achieving similar levels of success regardless of individual differences and needs? Whether this is actually deliverable with the funding levels available is arguable…

  2. Melanie Milburn

    Funny that he states success rates are ‘palpable nonsense’ when they form the basis of Ofsted Reports and are mentioned throughout. There are many providers and colleges out there that have excellent success rate. Many that monitor positive learner destinations, have fantastic success stories, carry out success rate data analysis with a view to reducing any barriers to success and work very hard, despite an abundance of red tape to ensure that Learner Outcomes remain at the top of their agenda.

    I am very proud to work for a provider that does have high success rates but also has high learner satisfaction rates and high employer satisfaction rates. They all go hand in hand with each other.

  3. Robbie Gono

    We have always suspected that the funding mechanism was susceptible to perverse incentives in as much as it incentivised “success rates” without paying much attention to what the learners had actually achieved and what those qualifications were worth in terms of employability skills. The only success that should count is where the learner progresses to- either further studies or sustainable employment. As it turns out, providers have been quick to exploit the loopholes in the the funding system and its bedfellow-the inspection regime. By offering a proliferation of dead-end qualifications to boost achivement and hence success rates, the whole sector has been racing to the bottom, whilst portraying an ever increasing rate of success.

  4. Lamby

    If more concentrate was taken to include Vocational Training within schools, more young people would be in a better position when it came to being prepared for work in relation to practical skills. Too many young people seek academic training and it is startling as too how many attend college and university and gain numerous qualifications but unfortunately no common sense and interview skills / knowledge. Start at school level and move it on into the FE provision and HE use our european neighbours as shining examples.

  5. It seems to have taken a long, long time to realise how the ‘success rates’ for GCSEs (and if we are honest A levels) have been achieved despite those of us with half a brain banging on about it for years (drastic dumbing down of content and checking of understanding). Before spending 15 years as an inspector I was really pleased with just how well BTEC Nationals were developing in giving youngsters the skills and abilities that HE really wanted as an alternative to the school system. They were then ripped apart. Sadly there is a need to look at the system again, but not by politically motivated people who do not ‘get’ what vocational education should be about. Twelve years ago I made a recommendation about technical certificates being introduced into apprenticeship frameworks (Training Standards Council survey on Apprenticeships) to ‘boost’ the technical knowledge that was being lost because of the proliferation of NVQs. Because the implementation of the recommendation was not spelt out clearly enough (because civil servants over influence final wording) this was not properly implemented. We need a real champion to come forward for FE and vocational training, not people who have lived their lives in higher education or in schools and who do not understand what employers and industry really need and want.

  6. FE Lecturer

    Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has launched a scathing attack on the FE and skills sector, branding success rates among colleges as “palpable nonsense”.

    He has a point, but he needs to do some fact finding before speaking out. He needs to take a look at how the BTEC system works rather than attacking individual colleges and the lecturers who have to endure the BTEC system. Too often the lecturers are doing all the running whilst students are too relaxed – little wonder that employers are not happy with the students they take on.

    BTEC students take NO EXAMS, instead they do assignments that are difficult to fail. Feedback from lecturers guides students who need to correct their work and subsequently few achieve deep learning. The BTEC system is not fit for purpose in engineering subjects.

  7. David Gee

    Real world: (and no disrespect intended to teaching colleagues).
    Performing arts in school: classrooms or school hall as teaching spaces, teachers never performed professionly, some thinking BTEC quals not rigorous because no exams sitting in a hall (see above).
    FE: industry standard theatre and drama/dance studios (latest LX/SFX equipment, fully equipped dressing rooms). Ex – industry theatre, wardrobe and make-up technicians available. Theatre used as part of professional touring circuit by major UK & global performance companies, students work with companies as matter of course & for work experience. All staff ex-professional performers, all trained teachers, BTEC and UAL quals taught properly. Wilshaw, you have no f*****g idea, please resign now. Nuff said.