The head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate this week demanded dramatic improvements in work-based learning.
Chief inspector David Sherlock told 270 delegates at the Association of Learning Providers autumn conference on Tuesday that he wanted to slash the number of substandard training providers. Around half are thought to be inadequate, a figure which Mr Sherlock wants cut to less than 10 per cent But he also said there had been considerable improvement in getting rid of poor providers over the past year with inadequacy rates dropping from 59 per cent to 46 per cent in the year to September 2003.
Mr Sherlock said: "A year ago we were in some trouble. Things were pretty bad. Over the past 12 months a resounding amount has been put right. I feel we have come through that difficult and dangerous period and we are back to a decent level on which to build.
"The fundamental challenge now is to get everyone to understand your contribution and that you are a unique bridge between public institutions and private employers. You are mainstream.
"But to occupy that position you have to be as good as the colleges where there is an inadequacy rate of under 10 per cent. It seems to me that is what you need to aim for. That should be your target for the next five years or so."
Mr Sherlock praised the massive improvements of many providers. The number of level 1 (the best score) and level 2 providers had more than doubled in the past year to from 24 to 51. Nearly all (97 per cent) providers showed an improvement at re-inspection and some had gone from a poor Level 5 to a Level 2, which he described as fantastic.
He said 18 of the 31 worst providers in 20012 had now left the sector. He added: "At the bottom everyone here knows there were providers who should not have been receiving public-sector contracts and whose work had been poor for a very long time.
"It doesn't give me any pleasure to say it but I think there has been a real step forward in the sense there has been a professionalisation of work-based learning over the past 12 months and that is not unrelated to the removal from all of our horizons of some of the embarrassments."
But Mr Sherlock said he was still anxious about the delivery of foundation modern apprenticeships where three-quarters of providers offer less than a 50 per cent chance of success. A quarter offering less than a one-in-seven chance of success and failure to deal with that would threaten attempts to move forward.
Looking forward, he said there needed to be a simplification of the 1,200 vocational awards and the "scary" number of 1,000 NVQs, only a fraction of which were ever used. He hinted that the inspectorate would announce a redefinition of how success is measured and promised delegates that within 18 months a much sought-after value-added measure of success would be rolled out.
Afterwards delegates acknowledged providers were working far more productively with the ALI but not without reservations.
Catherine Fogg, from the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, received resounding support when she suggested work-based learning should be judged differently to colleges: "Why are you suggesting that providers strive to attain the grades of FE colleges when we know you are not comparing like with like?
"A FE college will score a higher percentage for achievement against one scored by a work-based learning provider with the same cohort. When are you going to start inspecting providers and FE to the same criteria, which would markedly change the grades?"