The recently released National Achievement Rate tables make for interesting reading. In my opinion, this data should be the go-to place for employers, apprentices and parents to determine if their chosen college or provider is any good, because the percentage of apprentices who successfully complete their programme is a fundamental arbiter of how good the provision is. Yet it always surprises me that these figures are below the radar, and users have to dig around to find out just how good a college or provider is.
The overall picture
The headline figure is that, as a sector, we’re pretty average when it comes to getting apprentices through their programmes. Only two in three apprentices achieved in 2015-16, and it was 67 per cent or thereabouts for the two years prior to that. Naturally, this average hides huge variances across a wide range of organisations.
The tables show that there are 701 institutions listed that had a cohort of one apprentice or more in 2015-16. While there are many more private providers, and three-quarters of apprenticeships are delivered by them, the figures suggest that, on achievement rates, FE colleges are two percentage points higher. Around 28 per cent of colleges achieved below the national average, compared with 35.6 per cent of private providers. While this would tend to suggest that the private sector has a greater variance and problem with achievement rates, the figures are more nuanced. At the higher end of the scale, 12.4 per cent of colleges had achievements above 80 per cent while a more impressive 21 per cent of private providers sit in this category. It paints a picture of colleges performing closely to a 60-79 per cent margin, whereas private providers are more spread out across the distribution curve. To put it bluntly, you’re more likely to find both exceptional private providers and very poor private providers than you are for colleges – at least when it comes to the 2015-16 apprentice achievement rates.
Institutions not listed include sixth forms, specialist colleges and other publically funded institutions such as employer-providers
Achievement Rate 2015-16 (%)
Number of Institutions
80 - 84.9
75 - 79.9
70 - 74.9
67 - 69.9
60 - 66.9
55 - 59.9
50 - 54.9
There are some intriguing variances between very large providers. For example, GP Strategies Training Ltd had 5,800 apprentices in its cohort with an overall achievement rate in 2015-16 of 85.1 per cent. That’s pretty amazing given the size of the provision. Conversely, Learn Direct, with more than 16,000 apprentices, only managed an insipid 57.8 per cent. Speaking of Learn Direct, given the disconnect between Ofsted’s grading of “outcomes for learners” and achievement rates Learn Direct’s long-awaited inspection report could be “outstanding”. This unfathomable approach from inspectors has started to convince me that users should look at achievement rates first and Ofsted grades a distant second.
What’s encouraging about these figures?
Some 127 colleges, employers and providers secured achievement rates over 80 per cent – this accounts for about one in six of the listed institutions. A large number of providers performed between 70-80 per cent, meaning their apprentices have a marginal to good chance of doing better than the national average of 67 per cent. There are some leading lights in the top 10 per cent of all providers, including Brooklands College on 92 per cent and Skills To Group Ltd at 90.2 per cent. In my mind these organisations are stamping a quality mark on the apprenticeship brand and may well have good practice to share to drive up standards. They’ll be able to demonstrate a return on investment to employers, for instance – enrol 10 apprentices and at least nine will achieve. This return impacts upon the bottom line for employers and speaks volumes when establishing a business case that involves thousands of pounds from a levy digital account.
Tens of thousands of apprentices are enrolled with colleges, employers and providers operating below the national average. Some have truly disgraceful rates below 50 per cent, with an outrageous number of institutions at 10 per cent or below. How such organisations are still permitted to trade absolutely amazes me, and I fear for those employers and learners trapped with such poorly performing providers. Take a look at the tables and you will be shocked to see just how badly some organisations are doing.
As a sector, our achievement rates are the equivalent of school and university pass rates. If the national average pass mark for schools was 67 per cent there’d be uproar. It strikes me that this lacklustre national performance is treated like a shameful family secret that no one wants to talk about. Is this because there are powerful colleges or providers that are simply not good enough when it comes to apprentice achievements? I’ll let you decide.
Sanction poor providers
The Education and Skills Funding Agency continually trots out the same mantra about raising quality. However, what does it mean by the word "quality"? Achievement rates are stuck at 67 per cent nationally, while provision with less than 50 per cent achievement rates still gets funded. If achievement rates don’t form a meaningful part of "quality" then perhaps the ESFA should come out and say so. If it still believes that achievement rates are a vital component then what is it doing about providers failing when it comes to outcomes for learners? It’s time to walk the walk and sanction providers dragging us all down.
If you’re good, celebrate it
If you’re among the colleges and providers doing well in terms of these outcomes then shout it from the rooftops. For example, any college with a rate of 85 per cent or more is not only in the top 7 per cent of all provision, but is also in the top 2.3 per cent of colleges! This is something that will resonate with customers and give them a warm glow inside. You can empower and educate your employers to use these tables as a benchmark to check out those bidding for their business. If we can migrate employers away from poor colleges and providers to good ones then it will only serve to enrich the apprenticeship brand.