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David Sherlock congratulates success; but concerns raised over future

The quality of work-based learning has improved dramatically prompting the Chief Inspector of Adult Learning to judge it as “very impressive”.

Delivering his final annual report from the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI), David Sherlock was full of praise for the majority of providers judged in the higher grades: Of 263 providers, just 12% were considered as inadequate, while over half of the grades awarded were grade 1 and 2; this compares with 38% on the previous year, and just 17% when the ALI began [2001-2002].

He noted: “This is an extraordinary achievement for work-based learning providers”. However, he warned that: “Tumbling inadequacy rates do not only represent improvement. They also reflect the elimination of about 250 poor providers of publicly funded services since 2002. If the weak are no longer with us, the onus rests still more heavily on the strong to excel in absolute, rather than comparative, terms”.

Noting more serious concern, Mr Sherlock said: “Completion rates for full apprenticeship frameworks are poor. National averages still hover below 50% in many occupational areas. [These] are wholly unacceptable. Framework achievement is not everything, and work-based learning is still at a disadvantage while success equates to completion of a full apprenticeship rather than the individual components”.

“Work-based learning is getting better, much better indeed than it was five years ago, but it is still failing to offer all learners a programme of learning and qualification outcomes which are valued sufficiently to retain their commitment and motivation to complete”.

Adult learning figures made notable improvements in quality; 22% were judged as inadequate [37% for previous year], and 18% were deemed to have one or more areas as “unsatisfactory” [29% previously].

Mr Sherlock commented: “While adult and community learning (ACL) has not had a level of government support comparable with work-based learning, standards have nevertheless risen. If one compares ACL with work-based learning, it is difficult to resist seeing the missing ingredient as being encouragement and approval from government”.

However, he added: “The dual demands of increasing public accountability and reduced funding, combined with mixed messages from the government about the purpose, management and future of adult and community learning, have plunged the sector into a full-blown identity crisis. There is plenty still to play for, but wisdom, courage and firm leadership are required if adult and community learning’s position is to be consolidated and strengthened, rather than compromised”.

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Of the 98 further education institutions inspected, just 7% were judged to be “inadequate”, and the “proportion of good or outstanding grades rose from 25% to 47% and unsatisfactory grades fell from 21% to 6%”.

And speaking on the government’s Train to Gain initiative, Mr Sherlock said: “ALI inspectors found examples where the model had already decayed into “assess-assess-assess”; where little or no teaching of new skills took place and where little or no value had been added to the capability of the individual employee or employer, or to the national stock”.

“This is all too reminiscent of provision that the ALI found and condemned in 2001-02. If this potential problem were to become prevalent, it would be sufficiently serious to quickly destroy the merit and reputation of Train to Gain and much else which has been hard won in work-based learning”.

Other concerns raised in what amounted to a bittersweet report, included the “light-touch inspection: “[It] may lead to a progressive invisibility of what is excellent. By the same token, it may lead to overlooking what is poor, or even overvaluing it as we put our trust in the flimsy notion that nothing changes; that what we see before us in the present has not diminished in quality over time”.

“I have serious reservations about the notion of self-regulation; almost, surely, a contradiction in terms. I doubt the sufficiency of internal procedures to control and improve quality to world-beating standards. I fear they may be the road to mediocrity”.

“Above all, what must not be lost is the sense of urgency, creative anxiety and determination to excel rather than just succeed which has characterised much of adult learning and skills for the past five years or more. The baton has been passed, but the race is not yet run”.

To read David Sherlock’s final annual report from the Adult Learning Inspectorate, click here.

Vijay Pattni.

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