HALF of the organisations providing workplace training courses visited by inspectors in the past year are so bad they could lose public funding, it emerged this week. The damning verdict is a setback to ministers who see training in work as a vital part of their lifelong learning agenda.
Despite the Government's emphasis on training as a way of tackling social exclusion and poverty, inspectors found that few providers were using the appeal of work-based learning to attract people alienated from school or college.
More than 150 out of 300 organisations were found to have at least one area of weakness and will therefore be re-inspected within the next 12 months. If they fail to show sufficient improvement then the local training and enterprise council will be expected to withdraw funding. Common problems include methods of training and assessment, management of training and quality assurance.
The findings are in the first annual report of David Sherlock, the chief inspector of the new Training Standards Council. It is part of a rolling four-year programme of inspection of the 2,000 organisations which use public money to train employees.
Last year, checks were carried out on courses taken by 81,000 people. It is the first time that this type of learning has been subject to independent national inspections.
Mr Sherlock also questioned whether the same qualifications gained in different subjects were really of equal worth. In some subjects, gaining an NVQ level 2 normally takes about 18 months - in others it can be awarded after just three. "Are we certain that our standards-setting organisations take adequate account of the comparability of awards?" he asked.
Assessment procedures were criticised as inadequate. "Some qualifications gave little assurance that those who gained them had suitable practical competence. Internal verification was often unsystematic, providing little assurance of the consistency of assessments," the report said. There were too few work-based assessments and those carrying out assessments often did not have enough experience.
Overall, 15 per cent of courses were found to be unsatisfactory or poor. But results show significant variations between subjects. While engineering, manufacturing and pre-vocational programmes were found to be generally above average, many agriculture and care programmes are poor.
More than a third of providers received a low grade for quality assurance - identified by Mr Sherlock as "a vital area of activity for safeguarding and improving the quality of training".
Almost a quarter fail to manage training programmes satisfactorily. And many trainers have no education or training qualifications.
The report advocates a new way of judging the success of programmes. Currently most courses are judged on the number of NVQs per 100 leavers. However, this is described as "a poor measure of individual achievement" which makes it difficult to judge the chances of retention and success for trainees on programmes lasting over a year.
Providers were also taken to task for failing to monitor learners' progress properly. Few organisations hold data on trainees' achievements for more than a year, which hampers efforts to identify improvement.
However, things are getting better. Some organisations judged to be unsatisfactory have improved their training - others have lost government funding and closed. Twenty providers - including the training department of West Mercia Police and Milton Keynes Christian Foundation Ltd - which achieved the top two grades in all areas, are highlighted for others to emulate.
Overall, 40 per cent of the training inspected was judged to be good or outstanding. Pastoral support is generally good with more than half of providers gaining top grades. And trainees generally have access to high quality equipment.
"The quality of work-based training in this country ranges from the marvellously good to the dismally poor," said Mr Sherlock. "We have seen some stunning examples of success across the spectrum... Of course not all organisations yet reach these high standards. We have found a lot of training which is satisfactory, but mundane, and we will work hard to see this middle ground shift upwards."