All quantity, no quality

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
There’s a lot of talk about achieving the 3 million apprenticeships target – but very little action to ensure that standards aren’t compromised

It’s become something of a cliché. Alongside its push to create 3 million apprenticeships by the next election, the Department for Education should focus not just on quantity but also quality. Too often, this is as far as the analysis goes.

As the Public Accounts Committee put it this week, the 3 million target appears to be the “only real measure of success” as far as ministers as concerned (see “Levy could lead to ‘exploiting the system’”).

Credit must go to the Policy Exchange report on apprenticeships published last month, which concludes that the primary goal should be ensuring that all new apprenticeships are high quality – “even at the expense of volume”.

The official response from the DfE to concerns over quality is to trot out the fact that there has been an expansion in degree apprenticeships. The implicit argument: how can apprenticeships be low quality when some are equivalent to a university degree?

Degree apprenticeships a distraction

In theory, getting a degree-level apprenticeship is a no-brainer. Why would you bother wasting at least three years and £27,000 on going to university, when you could get an equivalent qualification while getting paid at the same time?

But the numbers remain miniscule. Apprenticeship starts at levels 6 and 7 in 2015-16 may have increased sevenfold from the previous year, but they still made up just 0.15 per cent of the total.

At this stage, ensuring that level 2 apprenticeships – of which more than 290,000 were started in 2015-16 – are of high quality is of far more importance.

The fact that all is not well has been confirmed by a series of reports on apprenticeships published in recent weeks, including (yesterday) by Ofsted.

As the inspectorate states, in 2015-16, the number working towards the new standards represented less than 1 per cent of those starting an apprenticeship – largely down to the fact the focus has been on higher-level apprenticeships.

Therefore, Ofsted rightly points out, if more apprentices are going to be able to take advantages of the benefits of the new system, more focus needs to be placed on the intermediate-level standards.

Until the government gets this right, achieving quality and quantity remains a long way away.

@stephenexley

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