At the end of 2014 there were a number of key documents and reports published about the FE sector. Most of them point to 2015 being another challenging year with pressures on budgets, ever more demanding quality standards and a very competitive environment for all providers.
One of the most important documents was the Ofsted Annual Report 2013-14. The main findings were very positive with the proportion of providers with good or better results increasing and improved teaching and learning. Independent training providers performed very well as did colleges but the employer providers did not. Ten of the sixteen employer providers that were inspected did not reach the good benchmark (or in other words, only 38% of employer providers were judged at least good compared with 65% of the 124 independent providers inspected).
There were a number of areas where Ofsted wanted to see improvements and this included improved delivery of English and maths, greater focus on work experience in pre-employment programmes and better delivery of Apprenticeship programmes. We would not disagree with these priorities and we will return to Apprenticeships later but what was also noteworthy about the report was the number of recommendations that were not directly about quality but about the application of skills policies. For example the report recommends that there should be more local coordination of skills policy and that LEPs should do more to inform the provision of providers. Whatever your views about localisation, it is interesting to see that Ofsted may be making judgements about how individual providers are interacting with local partnerships. We do of course agree with some of the Ofsted findings such as the fact that many LEPs have little or no representation from FE on their boards. However we need to be careful about Ofsted setting the policy on skills rather than reviewing the quality of delivery within that policy.
The report also suggests that there are not enough Traineeships. While we agree that the government's policy of using Ofsted grades is restricting the opportunities for many young people, we would not want Ofsted making a judgement that providers were not delivering enough Traineeships rather than say Study Programmes. It is certainly ironic that the main restriction on growing the numbers of Traineeships is the use of Ofsted grades.
On Apprenticeships, we agree that it is a real challenge to maintain and improve the quality of delivery and success rates. It is interesting that Ofsted recognise that the main reason for lower success rates was that apprentices 'could lose motivation if they were not developing their skills quickly enough' and many continued in their jobs but did not complete. The minimum duration has made this situation worse with providers having to extend the length of some programmes when learners were ready to move on.
The report also recognised that 'not enough providers held employers to account' which is another interesting perspective when we are looking at giving employers more ownership of the programme. The report underlines the importance of providers working with employers and its main summary says that 'giving purchasing power to employers is an important step', using the terminology that AELP has used, i.e. employers should have purchasing power and choice but not necessarily direct funding. Ofsted highlight the need to improve employer involvement, careers information, young people's attitudes and English and maths teaching but not specifically employer routed funding.
The Ofsted report covers the inspections up to 31 August 2014 and we know that it is becoming difficult to maintain the encouraging levels of inspection grades so there is certainly no complacency from training providers. 2015 will be another challenging year with expectations that providers will continue to deliver more for less. In the meantime we should ensure that we use the evidence we have from reports like this when we are developing policies for the future.
Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers