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Opinion: ‘It’s time to hold "the dregs of FE" to account'

Some are born to mediocrity, some rise to mediocrity, while others have mediocrity thrust upon them, writes Matt Garvey. In the case of 219 colleges and providers, it’s all three

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Some are born to mediocrity, some rise to mediocrity, while others have mediocrity thrust upon them, writes Matt Garvey. In the case of 219 colleges and providers, it’s all three

The recently released Apprenticeship Achievement rates for 2014-15 contain 85 institutions with rates below 60 per cent, and a further 134 with rates between 60 per cent and 69.9 per cent. Some of these institutions represent the dregs of our industry and are letting down thousands of apprentices.

For example, the figures include 1,850 apprentices with institutions whose achievement rates were below 10 per cent. I am incredulous that organisations operating at such pitiful levels of quality are able to retain a contract with the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), or even to subcontract. Yet recent climb-downs by the SFA over quality – such as reducing the threshold for providers to deliver traineeships – illustrate that outcomes for learners simply aren't top of the agenda. If they were, the legion of losers operating below minimum levels of performance would be put out of their misery. However, the evidence shows that they continue to thrive. As proof, one significant organisation on the list has recorded an achievement rate of 0 per cent for the second successive year. Another saw its achievement rate fall from the dizzying heights of 2.4 per cent for 1,370 learners in 2013-14 to 0 per cent in 2014-15.

If providers operating at the unacceptable end of the quality spectrum were forced out of the sector, the average achievement rate would be much higher than the current lukewarm 71.7 per cent. I’m absolutely astounded that these organisations are devaluing the apprenticeship programme that so many of us have worked tirelessly to develop.

At the quality end

Juxtapose these detestable organisations with the 208 colleges, providers and employers operating at over 80 per cent. These are the real foot soldiers of apprenticeships, delivering outcomes for learners than mean something. Kudos to the likes of Mitie Group Plc, which had more than 500 apprentices achieve at a rate of 98.6 per cent. To prove that the FE sector can deliver outstanding quality, the 640 learners at City of Westminster College achieved at a rate of 93.8 per cent.

I’m all for a diversity in provision but not for a 100 per cent diversity in quality. There has to be really tough action taken on providers operating at a sub-prime level when it comes to outcomes for learners. They are literally dragging us all down with them, especially those with a bums-on-seat approach to their business model.

Steps for improvement

The solution to poor providers is to close them down and ask the performing part of the sector to take over. This variance in quality would not be tolerated in any other public service, such as schools and hospitals, and we should not tolerate it in apprenticeships.

Here are my steps for improvement:

  1. Suspend learner recruitment for any provider below the minimum levels of performance;
  2. Develop a pecking order for providers during growth cases. The higher the achievement rate, the closer to the front of the line you go. The SFA growth process, itself an exercise of sadists and masochists (reader, you know which you are), takes no account of provider quality. It rewards bums-on-seats. This enables poor provision to grow potentially at the expense of good quality providers;
  3. Withdraw contracts from consistently failing provision and facilitate good providers to take over the learners and employers.

Achievement rates, based on the years before the downturn in success, should be around 80 per cent by now. The fact that they slumped for three years and are still disappointing must be the priority issue for the SFA. In my opinion, fixing quality must take priority over and above the rush for new entrants to the market. It can’t help to add more institutions to the list while there are so many poor ones. Therefore, rather than deregulating the provider base to further increase the number of approved providers, the SFA should regulate the existing provision and get quality up. Thereafter, new high-quality providers can have the opportunity to deliver directly to employers.

Matt Garvey is managing director of West Berkshire Training Consortium. He tweets at @WBTCNewbury

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