The figures below are the results of Ofsted inspection activity in-year. It’s important to note these grades are for apprenticeship provision.

This means they are not specific to any one type of provider. It’s surprising how often this is misunderstood. 

  • In 2017/18 Ofsted graded 58% of apprenticeship provision at least good
  • In 2016/17 Ofsted graded 49% of apprenticeship provision at least good
  • In 2015/16 Ofsted graded 63% of apprenticeship provision at least good
  • In 2014/15 Ofsted graded 51% of apprenticeship provision at least good

As Dr Chris Jones (Ofsted), rightly reiterated when I shared these figures at a recent event, this only shows provision inspected during that 12 month period, so we need to take into account these grades represent inspections carried out on the basis of risk.

That same risk profile also applies to all other education provision on Ofsted’s watch. In my next article I’ll share a comparison with you, as this shows apprenticeships in stark contrast to other inspections reported each year and I think raises some interesting questions.

It seems difficult to argue this demonstrates a trend of improvement in the provision, which falls into scope during each period.

What is more useful to point out, is the reasons nearly half of apprenticeship provision inspected was not yet good, have remained fairly consistent during that time.

I believe there is a high risk, should we read the tea-leaves and look to the Ofsted annual report for 2020/21, the % won’t have improved any further. My rationale for considering this to be a risk is based around:

  1. Challenge of moving from apprenticeship frameworks to standards 
  2. End-point assessment familiarity
  3. The champion or thief of quality apprenticeships are employers
  4. A perfect inspection storm

1. Frameworks to standards challenge

The challenge of moving from apprenticeship frameworks to standards has highlighted the need to improve the capability of some curriculum leads and/or trainers to design programmes of learning. 

Over the last five years, I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of managers and trainer-assessors and this has been a consistent area of support.

The reason is this: An apprenticeship framework can be very formulaic.

It can be seen as a step-by-step path to move someone along a track of content. It’s the shorthand language of units and bullet points, where the sum of the parts can be lost when focusing on the detail beneath the headlines.

This was in fact one of the issues raised in the 2012 Richard Review of Apprenticeships, which triggered the reforms.

In contrast, an apprenticeship standard - brought in as a cornerstone of the reforms - does not seek to specify the steps, it focuses on the outcome - the qualified practitioner in their chosen occupation.

It asks the deliverer and the employer to determine the best path of learning for apprentices, using their shared knowledge of the occupation and pedagogy.  This shift in emphasis has created an understandable struggle for some.

As the scaffolding of a well-understood, step-by-step framework is dismantled, trainers have looked to others to replace the scaffolding. For example, they’ve looked to the awarding bodies, to the end-point assessment organisations.

We often hear "How can I know what to teach if I don’t know how it will be tested?" There’s some truth to this but, as you’ll see later on, this is also a concern. 

We have to ask why our training professionals look for guidance from elsewhere?

Let me be absolutely clear; this is not a judgement of these individuals; it’s a recognition that much of apprenticeship provision (particularly at Level 2 and 3) has been built largely on assessment of NVQs. We’ve still much more to do to address this challenge.

I was pleased to see Education and Training Foundation (ETF) look to gather opinion on the Professional Standards for Teaching and Training. I hope those delivering apprenticeships will actively engage with this.

2. End-point assessments

The introduction of end-point assessment is one of the biggest changes we’re experiencing as a result of the reforms.

If I were to take a guess, when data is published on EPA outcomes, we’ll see a lower level of first attempt achievement than we may have expected:

  • Lower, because it is still very new.
  • Lower because our trainers are still getting used to the differences between an on-programme portfolio and an end-point showcase.
  • Lower because some of the assessment plans are more challenging than is really necessary.
  • Lower because we’re still getting to grips with what adequate preparation ought to be.

I could go on. Whilst this is a concern and we need to act to improve it, I see it as teething problems. I think there is a much greater risk.

As our collective knowledge of EPA grows, our thinking narrows - almost to the point where our curriculum becomes no more than a servant of the test. And if you think this can’t happen, then you only need to look at the concerns that arose around SATs and GCSE preparation as evidence.

We must safeguard against a reductionist approach as best we can, by learning from elsewhere in the education system.

This is an opportunity for policy makers, target setters and an inspection regime to move beyond data as far as is realistic.

3. Employers: champion or thief?

The champion and thief of quality apprenticeships are employers. A bold statement, so bear with me. 

The amount of time apprentices are with their employer is far higher than with the training provider. I don’t even like using the term ‘employer’. It implies training providers are dealing with a single person. They aren’t.

The decision maker who signed the contract is unlikely to be the day-to-day mentor, unless it is a very small business.

The mentor/ line manager is key to success. They always have been.

Any training provider will be able to share with you the difference it makes to the apprenticeship when an employer is actively involved. I have seen a clearer recognition of this as the reforms have unfolded.

More caution over recruiting an apprentice where the employer may not deliver an appropriate level of off the job learning, doesn’t’ commit to reviewing progress; doesn’t provide an appropriate level of support. This recognition is good news for quality but perhaps not so good for hitting apprenticeship numbers or targets.

Whilst higher education colleagues will struggle to recognise the point made earlier about programme design, I know many who are already coming up against the challenge of engaging line managers in the programme of learning.

The business community has much to learn about how to support apprentices successfully, from the employers who really are the champions.

4. A perfect storm

A perfect storm is brewing. I like the proposed education inspection framework. I also understand there are those who are concerned about the challenges of implementing it successfully. However, the overall direction of travel is good.

When it launches in readiness for September, the focus for inspection is heading towards one where education providers will need to demonstrate the extent to which they successfully design and deliver a well considered and crafted curriculum and the rationale behind it. It moves away from an over-emphasis on outcomes. 

If you look at this in the context of the risks I have outlined, I think we have a problem that needs to be rapidly addressed.

Not, I hasten to add to deliver what Ofsted wants, more that what Ofsted will look at, are areas for development in apprenticeship provision, which will come into sharper focus.

Apprenticeships present us with an opportunity to revolutionise an education system that for too long has relied on a single track through A-level to university. Yet it can only do so if we are at the very least, in line with other parts of the education system in the quality offered.

There is much for us to be positive about with the provision that is good. I very much look forward to the day an annual report tells us that 80% of in-year inspected apprenticeship provision is at least good. Then we’re really motoring.

Louise Doyle, Director, Mesma

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