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From the FE editor: Ofsted's criticisms of apprenticeships will stick unless the government acts

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To say that Michael Gove ruffled a few feathers during his time as education secretary would be an understatement. Pretty much every section of the educational establishment was the object of his ire at some point during his tenure.

Mr Gove always argued that he was unfairly represented in the media. For, however many times he insisted that the country was blessed with its best ever generation of teachers, it was always his criticisms that were picked up. But as the former journalist was acutely aware, carefully crafted, outspoken turns of phrase will always attract attention at the expense of long lists of platitudes.

Even before Ofsted’s report on apprenticeships was published yesterday, all and sundry knew what it would say. A briefing disseminated over the weekend criticised programmes that are often “used as a means of accrediting existing, low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors”.

While Ofsted insists that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw “fully supports the government’s commitment to deliver 3 million apprenticeships over the next five years”, the briefing concluded that “the rise in these poor-quality courses has devalued the apprenticeship brand”.

Guess which elements of this statement were reported in the press? “Apprenticeships expansion ‘devaluing brand’ ”, the BBC announced. “Ofsted chief to warn on inadequate apprenticeships”, the Financial Times proclaimed.

Even more intriguing was skills minister Nick Boles’ response: “putting an end to poor-quality apprenticeship training lies at the heart of our reforms”, he said.

So who is responsible for the weak provision that apparently litters the FE landscape? The expansion of apprenticeships is hardly new. The coalition government was quick to trumpet its grand plans as far back as 2010. But Mr Boles seems to have conveniently forgotten that his party was the senior government partner for the past five years.

“Ofsted’s report backs up the findings of our 2012 review and provides further evidence for our decision to put employers rather than training providers in the driving seat,” Mr Boles told the BBC. At the risk of stating the obvious, 2012 was three years ago. Ministers have had plenty of time to address these issues.

Make no mistake, to have Ofsted highlighting the poor quality of much provision is an embarrassment. And ministers cannot have it both ways: taking credit for the rapid expansion of the programme while placing blame for low standards elsewhere.

“Our apprenticeship reforms are helping to build the modern, highly skilled workforce British businesses need,” Mr Boles claimed last week, with 872,000 people employed on government-funded schemes during 2014-15. But, if Ofsted’s new report is to be believed, many of these will have been doing little more than “making coffee and cleaning floors”.

In pointing out shortcomings in provision, Ofsted is doing its job. But such outspoken criticisms are damaging at a crucial time for the programme. The government must ensure that the next time Ofsted passes judgement on apprenticeships, it has better news to report.

stephen.exley@tesglobal.com

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