Colleges that should be helping unemployed people into work are too often focused on "the achievement of qualifications" rather than getting them a job, Ofsted has claimed.
Many learning providers and colleges take a "sheep dip" approach, directing learners en masse to available qualifications instead of focusing on individuals' needs, the watchdog's national director of learning and skills, Matthew Coffey, told TES.
Last August, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) launched a new scheme to provide more "market-focused" training. Independent FE providers, which run apprenticeships, and colleges were expected to link up with Jobcentre Plus branches and employers to tackle long-term unemployment. But a report published yesterday by Ofsted, at the request of BIS, found that fewer than one in five learners on the scheme have actually gained a job as a result.
"Providers and participants too often saw the provision primarily in terms of progression to further training such as qualifications at a higher level," the report said. "Although this may be appropriate for individuals with significant barriers to employment, not enough participants had clear employment goals or an action plan that provided them with clear direction on the path to employment.
"Just under half of the 45 providers visited reported difficulties in recruiting participants to specific employability provision, often resulting in cancelled courses or low numbers."
The findings come as youth unemployment soars. According to the latest statistics, just over 1 million young people aged 16-24 are unemployed - 22 per cent of the population for that age group. At the end of 2011, the youth unemployment rate had reached its second highest point of the last 20 years.
But just a third of the providers visited by Ofsted as part of its report into the BIS scheme were deemed to have effective systems for assessing and recording participants' prior knowledge, barriers to employment and employability skills. Even learners with low levels of literacy, numeracy and language skills were referred to mainstream provision "based on the need to achieve a qualification" rather than with the aim of securing a job.
"Providers are not looking sufficiently at individual barriers learners may well have (to employment)," Mr Coffey said. "`Sheep dip' is a term used by providers: just sending people on to a particular programme because it is available. It does move learners forward, but doesn't address their specific needs."
Bespoke programmes from specific employers achieved better results, with 27 per cent going on to get a job.
Ofsted called for participants in the BIS scheme to be given more experience of the workplace. "Those interviewed typically said that they would like the chance to try out their skills at work," the report said.
Providers found that some Jobcentre Plus branches were making low numbers of referrals to the scheme, due to poor communication and a limited understanding of the programme. Ofsted called on BIS to clarify the scheme's aims and objectives, and promote it among staff at Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, backed Ofsted's calls for better, closer cooperation between government departments. "Qualifications are important for progression, but too much emphasis on achieving one before securing a job can be counterproductive, especially in the current economic climate," he said.
"There is an appetite among our members to make a success of this provision," Mr Hoyle added. "But they require a clear signal from the Skills Funding Agency that it still sees funding of skills for the unemployed as a major priority, as well as the funding of growth in apprenticeships."
A BIS spokesman said: "The findings of this report support the government's approach of encouraging local partnerships between Jobcentre Plus, colleges and training providers to ensure that training is relevant to individual and labour market needs, and has identified some very good practice."
WORK IT OUT
45 - Number of colleges, independent learning providers and local authority providers visited by Ofsted for the report.
19% - Rate of participants on the `back to work' scheme who secured a job.
27% - Rate of participants on bespoke programmes from individual companies who secured a job.
1% - Lowest rate of students securing jobs.
46% - Highest rate of students securing jobs.