The rationale behind the government’s radical programme of apprenticeship reform has been called into question after a new survey revealed that employers were largely satisfied with the training currently on offer.
The annual FE Choices survey, administered by the Skills Funding Agency, allows employers and learners to rate providers according to their satisfaction levels.
TES analysis of the results for 2014-15 reveals that almost 92 per cent of providers were given a rating of seven or more out of 10 for employer satisfaction (see graphic, above right).
There was also an increase of three percentage points in the proportion of providers that were given a rating of nine or more (18 per cent) compared with 2013-14.
However, the proportion given a score of at least seven by employers dropped from 94 per cent to 92 per cent over the same period.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) said that the figures demonstrated that “the current system works and delivers what employers want and need”.
But the CBI business lobby organisation welcomed moves to give employers greater control over apprenticeships, arguing that they can “better identify the needs and challenges in their sectors”.
The biggest change announced by the government is the introduction of a levy, to help it meet its target of 3 million starts during the current Parliament. Large businesses will pay 0.5 per cent of their pay bill towards the programme; in return, they will have access to digital “vouchers” that they can spend on training. Currently, providers receive contracts directly from the government.
In October, skills minister Nick Boles said that the reforms were designed to bring an end to “poor quality” training.
Launching a critical report on apprenticeships in October, the Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said that too many employers were “wasting public funds” on poor quality provision. Just last month, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission argued that the programme was “failing to deliver for young people”.
But the FE Choices employer satisfaction survey reveals that out of 548 providers rated by their partner employers, only 46 received a score lower than seven out of 10.
“The evidence base is that the current system works and delivers what employers want and need,” said AELP board member Stewart Segal. “It has always been the case and these figures prove it. That is not to say that we can’t improve, but there has been improvement in recent years.”
‘What employers want’
The scores were slightly lower among FE colleges, with almost 86 per cent being given seven or better.
David Corke, the Association of Colleges’ director of education and skills policy, said that colleges were focused on meeting the needs of businesses in their local area. “Whatever reservations there are about the lack of detail that surrounds the changes [to apprenticeships], colleges will continue to build sustainable relationships with employers,” he said.
But a spokesman for the CBI said that giving businesses greater control over training was “the right thing to do”.
“Employers can better identify the needs and challenges in their sectors – but if they are to be successful at closing skills gaps and offering routes to progression and good careers, the new levy must allow them to invest and spend in the ways that are best for their business,” he added.
The provider that had the top FE Choices score for 2014-15 was Saks Education, with 9.8 out of 10 (see box, right).
System Training received the lowest score (4.7). A spokesman for the provider said that the results reflected a “period of transition”. Since the survey was carried out, new trainers had been recruited and investment had been made in new learning technologies. As a result, there was a much stronger focus on learner achievement, he added.
Bolton College obtained the highest score among general FE colleges (9.6), with Milton Keynes College achieving the lowest score (5.7).
Lorraine Groch, the vice-principal for enterprise at Bolton College, said that it made an effort to offer a bespoke service for each of its employers in line with their feedback. A spokesman for Milton Keynes College expressed “some surprise” at the research as its own surveys “show a very different position”.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “As this survey shows, there is some excellent work taking place across the further education sector, but we want to do even better. Our reforms are giving employers the power to design new, more rigorous apprenticeships that help to ensure learners really are job-ready.”
This is an article from the 8 April edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here