Ofsted inspectors come in for plenty of stick from teachers, but they are made to work hard for their money. The watchdog inspects everything from nurseries and primary schools up to colleges and independent training providers.
And you can add another growing category of institution to that list: universities. This is because higher education institutions have taken enthusiastically to offering apprenticeships not least with the growing popularity of degree apprenticeships at level 6 and 7 (bachelor’s and master’s level respectively).
If you include apprenticeship at level 4 and upwards, higher-level programmes have more than doubled in three years – from 19,800 starts in 2014-15 to 48,200 in 2017-18.
More news: 'A degree of confusion over apprenticeships'
In January, Tes revealed that universities’ collective income from FE provision has reached more than £50 million – four times the figure of three years earlier. Of this, almost £30 million was for apprenticeships. During this same period, the number of universities delivering FE provision almost trebled, from 21 to 62.
The rapid growth of higher-level apprenticeships has had major implications for the Department for Education.
Despite the number of apprenticeship starts still being well below pre-levy levels, the growing popularity of these expensive, higher-level programmes is gobbling up what is left of funding. Indeed, permanent secretary Jonathan Slater told the Public Accounts Committee last month that, on the basis of current trends, there could instead be a “significant overspend” in 2021.
But, returning the subject of universities delivering apprenticeships, the consequences could well be just as serious. Anecdotally, there are plenty of stories coming in about universities whose enthusiasm for the apprenticeship shilling is not matched by their enthusiasm for the red tape that this type of provision entails – not to mention the prospect of the sheer ignominy of being criticised by the schools inspectorate.
'Sense of inevitability'
While there has been a flurry of short monitoring inspections of new providers, it has taken until this month for a university to receive a critical full inspection report. Step forward Sheffield Hallam University, which was graded "requires improvement" by Ofsted.
Inspectors said that too many engineering apprentices did not value or complete the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) component of their programmes. Around two-fifths of operations/departmental manager apprentices left their programmes early without completing this component.
Given the sheer number of universities which have been forced to allow Ofsted in for the first time in recent months, there has been a sense of inevitability that one of them would come in for some stinging criticism.
“Been waiting for a story like this,” tweeted Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and former government adviser.
'Grey areas and sheer idiocies'
But more than just embarrassing the university concerned, this case highlights some of the complexities, grey areas and sheer idiocies in the system of apprenticeship accountability.
First, the “vast majority” of apprenticeship provision at Sheffield Hallam is at level 6 and 7, the university pointed out – so weren’t in scope for the inspection. Oversight for these qualifications lies with the Office for Students, the HE regulator, not Ofsted. Clear as mud.
Needless to say, the grey areas and confusion over who is responsible for what – despite the fact that it all lies within the overall remit of the Department for Education – leaves the sector wide open to falling through the cracks.
Not to mention that the technical details of running a tight apprenticeship programme – detailed record keeping, contract management, employer liaison, etc – are not necessarily familiar territory for all of the universities moving into apprenticeships.
So could we end up with a situation in which a university ends up being graded "inadequate" by Ofsted? It’s by no means beyond the realms of possibility – and Ofsted is duty-bound to treat all providers the same and hold them all to the same standards.
Not that a university would be likely to take such a damning verdict lying down – legal action would be almost certain to ensue. And, to be fair, the overwhelming majority of universities inspected so far have been rated good or better. But make no mistake: the experience of universities moving into apprenticeships thus far has by no means being straightforward in all cases. I suspect that this is an issue worth keeping a close eye on.
Stephen Exley is FE editor at Tes