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'Ofsted's direction of travel is right'

The regulator's new inspections will shine a light on areas of apprenticeship provision that require improvement, writes Louise Doyle

ofsted colleges FE skills providers inspectors funding budget apprenticeship

The regulator's new inspections will shine a light on areas of apprenticeship provision that require improvement, writes Louise Doyle

The figures below are the results of in-year Ofsted inspection activity. It’s important to note these grades are for apprenticeship provision. This means they are not specific to any one type of provider. It’s surprising how often this is misunderstood.

  • 2017-18: Ofsted graded 58 per cent of apprenticeship provision as at least good
  • 2016-17: 49 per cent at least good
  • 2015-16: 63 per cent at least good
  • 2014-15: 51 per cent at least good

As Chris Jones, HMI and specialist adviser for apprenticeships at Ofsted, rightly reiterated when I shared these figures at a recent event, this only shows provision that was inspected during that 12-month period, so we need to take into account that these grades represent inspections carried out on the basis of risk. That same risk profile also applies to all other education provision on Ofsted’s watch. 

It seems difficult to argue that this demonstrates a trend of improvement in the quality of provision that falls into scope during each period. What is more useful to point out are the reasons why nearly half of apprenticeship provision inspected is not yet deemed good – a finding that has remained fairly consistent during that time.

I believe there is a high risk, should we read the tea leaves and look to the Ofsted annual report for 2020-21, that the percentage won’t have improved any further. My rationale for considering this to be a risk is based on:

  • The challenge of moving from apprenticeship frameworks to standards.
  • Issues with end-point assessment (EPA).
  • Employers, who are either the champions or thieves of quality apprenticeships.
  • The arrival of a perfect inspection storm.

From frameworks to standards

The challenge of moving from apprenticeship frameworks to standards has highlighted the need to improve the capability of some curriculum leads and/or trainers to design programmes of learning.

Over the past five years, I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of managers and trainer-assessors, and this has been a consistent area of support. The reason is this: an apprenticeship framework can be very formulaic. It can be seen as a step-by-step path to move someone along a track of content. It’s the shorthand language of units and bullet points, where the sum of the parts can be lost when focusing on the detail beneath the headlines.

This was in fact one of the issues raised in the 2012 Richard Review of Apprenticeships, which triggered the reforms.

In contrast, an apprenticeship standard – brought in as a cornerstone of the reforms – does not seek to specify the steps. It focuses on the outcome: the qualified practitioner in their chosen occupation. It asks the deliverer and the employer to determine the best path of learning for apprentices, using their shared knowledge of the occupation and pedagogy.

This shift in emphasis has created an understandable struggle for some.

Awarding bodies

As the scaffolding of a well-understood, step-by-step framework is dismantled, trainers have looked to others to replace the scaffolding. For example, they’ve looked to the awarding bodies, to the EPA organisations. We often hear "how can I know what to teach if I don’t know how it will be tested"? There’s some truth to this but, as you’ll see later on, this is also a concern.

We have to ask why our training professionals look for guidance from elsewhere. Let me be clear: this is not a judgement of these individuals – it’s a recognition that much of apprenticeship provision (particularly at Level 2 and 3) has been built largely on assessment of NVQs. We’ve still much more to do to address this challenge.

I was pleased to see the Education and Training Foundation look to gather opinion on the professional standards for teaching and training. I hope those delivering apprenticeships will actively engage with this.

End-point assessments

The introduction of EPA is one of the biggest changes we’re experiencing as a result of the reforms. If I were to take a guess, when data is published on EPA outcomes, we’ll see a lower level of first-attempt achievement than we may have expected.

Lower because it is still very new. Lower because our trainers are still getting used to the differences between an on-programme portfolio and an end-point showcase. Lower because some of the assessment plans are more challenging than is really necessary. Lower because we’re still getting to grips with what adequate preparation ought to be. I could go on.

While this is a concern and we need to act to improve it, I see it as a teething problem.

I think there is a much greater risk. As our collective knowledge of EPA grows, our thinking narrows – almost to the point where our curriculum becomes no more than a servant of the test. And if you think this can’t happen, then you only need to look at the concerns that arose around SATs and GCSE preparation as evidence.

We must safeguard against a reductionist approach as best we can by learning from elsewhere in the education system. This is an opportunity for policymakers, target-setters and an inspection regime to move beyond data as far as is realistic.

Employers: champions or thieves?

The champions and thieves of quality apprenticeships are the employers. It's a bold statement, so bear with me.

The amount of time apprentices are with their employer is far higher than with the training provider. I don’t even like using the term "employer". It implies training providers are dealing with a single person. They aren’t. The decision-maker who signed the contract is unlikely to be the day-to-day mentor unless it is a very small business. The mentor/line manager is key to success.

They always have been. Any training provider will be able to share with you the difference it makes to the apprenticeship when an employer is actively involved. I have seen a clearer recognition of this as the reforms have unfolded. So, more caution over recruiting an apprentice where the employer may not deliver an appropriate level of off-the-job learning, doesn’t commit to reviewing progress or doesn’t provide an appropriate level of support.

This recognition is good news for quality, but perhaps not so good for hitting apprenticeship numbers or targets. While higher education colleagues will struggle to recognise the point made earlier about programme design, I know many who are already coming up against the challenge of engaging line managers in the programme of learning. The business community has much to learn about how to support apprentices successfully – from those employers that really are the champions.

A perfect storm

A perfect storm is brewing. I like the proposed education inspection framework. I also understand there are those who are concerned about the challenges of implementing it successfully. However, the overall direction of travel is good. When it launches in readiness for September, the focus for inspection is heading towards one where education providers will need to demonstrate the extent to which they successfully design and deliver a well-considered and crafted curriculum, as well as the rationale behind it. It moves away from an overemphasis on outcomes.

If you look at this in the context of the risks I have outlined, I think we have a problem that needs to be rapidly addressed. Not, I hasten to add, to deliver what Ofsted wants – more that what Ofsted will look at are areas for development in apprenticeship provision, which will come into sharper focus.

Apprenticeships present us with an opportunity to revolutionise an education system that for too long has relied on a single track through A level to university. Yet, it can only do so if we are, at the very least, in line with other parts of the education system in the quality offered.

There is much for us to be positive about with the provision that is good. I very much look forward to the day an annual report tells us that 80 per cent of in-year inspected apprenticeship provision is at least good. Then we’re really motoring.

Louise Doyle is director of Mesma

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