Work-based trainers face a double whammy. The Department for Education and Skills is threatening to axe the contracts of poor providers. Meanwhile, the Adult Learning Inspectorate says more than half of them are inadequate.
The latest ALI report this summer found widespread weaknesses in retention and achievement, leadership and management, assessment and key skills training.
But almost 90 per cent of teaching sessions were satisfactory or better, leading the Association of Learning Providers (ALP) to think that their sector is getting a raw deal from the inspections in comparison with colleges.
"Our complaint is not that one route is better than another, but differences are not recognised in the way we count and record success," said Graham Hoyle, the ALP's chief executive. "The perception is that people (in work-based learning) don't stick with it. It has a massive impact on choice and parental decisions. Morale does go down and anger up when assessments measure wrong things or give the wrong picture," he added. "We need to start identifying what really counts instead of what we are counting."
The funding and inspection systems emphasise retention and completion of the full Modern Apprentice framework, with its many "additional components" and technical certificates as well as job skills. But the ALP believes that it is harder for work-based trainers than colleges to keep their students because they are more dependent on local economic conditions.
Colleges have a few weeks in which students can change course without incurring penalties, but if an employed apprentice moves to a different job at any time, "it goes in the failure box", said Mr Hoyle.
Apprentices are part of the labour market, he added, and may have very good reasons for changing jobs. In sectors such as retail, leisure and hospitality where staff turnover rates top 50 per cent and low pay is common, young people expect to change jobs frequently for an extra few pence an hour or more flexible shifts, even if it means no more training. Some employers will take people who have almost finished their apprenticeship, but not help them to complete it. And companies making layoffs may sack apprentices first.
The DFES action plan, to improve the quality of work-based learning issued in May puts an obligation on local learning and skills councils to monitor provider performance closely and put in support where necessary, a policy supported by the ALP. "(Providers) have got no doubts that whatever they do, they need to do it better. It's the culture of a successful business," said Mr Hoyle. The ALP would like to see a system of local advisers working closely with providers on a long-term basis, rather than expensive, piecemeal consultancy.
But with the carrot comes the stick. The action plan also tells local LSCs to halt the assignment of new trainees to providers with poor assessment grades and, if necessary, to end their contracts.
With the current emphasis on retention and completion, this could be the "kiss of death" to providers in difficult sectors, or with many hard-to-help clients, if punitive action kicks in too quickly, he said.
The policy of the DFES and the LSC to support and invest in providers'
quality is "spot on", he added, "but it's too early to say whether behaviour will follow intent. We will be analysing this year the routes by which the LSC puts in support. It's got to be a positive attempt to jack-up quality, not a heavy-handed attempt to close them down."