Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Too many apprenticeships not meeting the needs of young people, employers or the economy

A new Ofsted report finds that not enough apprenticeships are providing advanced, professional skills in the sectors that need them most.

The drive to create more apprenticeships has diluted their quality, an Ofsted report published today (Thursday 22 October) finds.

Apprenticeships: developing skills for future prosperity reports that many of the courses on offer are failing to give learners the skills and knowledge employers are looking for. Too many low-skilled roles are being classed as apprenticeships and used to accredit the established skills of people who have been in a job for some time. In some cases learners were not even aware that the course they were on was classed as an apprenticeship.

The surge in apprenticeship numbers has been mainly in sectors such as customer service, retail, administration and care. It has not focused enough on the priorities that benefit employers or the economy. There are still not enough apprenticeships providing the advanced, professional-level skills needed in sectors with shortages.

The rise in poor-quality courses has devalued the apprenticeship brand at a time when there is a concerted effort to put vocational learning on an equal footing with academic study.

Ofsted’s report finds the Government’s ambition to boost apprenticeships in England and create a higher skilled workforce is being undermined because:

  • the quality of apprenticeship provision is too variable and often fails to provide sufficient training to develop new skills - especially in service sectors like retail and care
  • the growth in apprenticeships over the last 8 years has not focused sufficiently on the sectors with skills shortages
  • the number of 16 to 18 year olds being taken on as apprentices is as low today as it was a decade ago, with most places going to those over 25
  • secondary schools are not doing enough to promote apprenticeships to young people. Careers guidance is not of a high enough quality and too many schools do not do enough to prepare pupils for the world of work
  • employers, especially small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), have been slow to get involved in designing programmes and developing standards, or in taking on apprentices out of fear of becoming mired in bureaucracy

Launching the report at a speech to the Confederation of British Industry in the West Midlands, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, will demand urgent, joined-up action to be taken by schools, employers and further education and skills providers to help raise the quality of all apprenticeships.

Calling on the ‘guilty parties’ to act, Sir Michael will say:

The fact that only 5% of our youngsters go into an apprenticeship at 16 is little short of a disaster.

Too many of our schools are failing to prepare young people for the world of work. Even where they do, the careers advice on offer isn’t encouraging enough youngsters into vocational routes that would serve them best. Too many of our further education providers have focussed for too long on equipping youngsters with dubious qualifications of little economic relevance. And too many employers have not engaged with schools or organised themselves effectively to make the apprenticeship system work.

Our report today lays bare what many have long suspected. Despite the increase in numbers, very few apprenticeships are delivering the professional, up-to-date skills in the sectors that need them most.

Employers and providers involved in poor quality, low-level apprenticeships are wasting public funds. They are abusing the trust placed in them by government and apprentices to deliver meaningful, high-quality training.

Being an apprentice should be a badge of honour. The reforms now working their way through the system are commendable. But we are kidding ourselves if we think our good intentions are enough. We have won the argument over the value of apprenticeships. We have yet to make them a sought-after and valid alternative career choice for hundreds of thousands of young people.

Unless we do so, we risk leaving in place a two-tier system of high and low quality apprenticeships that short change the participants and fail to address the skill needs of the nation.

Sir Michael will also call for better local co-ordination to address the shortcomings in the system. He will challenge his business audience to get more involved, saying:

The overriding problem has been, is and will continue to be one of organisation. Unless there is a very clear organisational structure around apprenticeships the government’s ambitions will remain unmet.

Employers have got to take ownership. Why isn’t there a recognised structure to deliver apprenticeships at a local level? If the great majority of employers are SMEs, employing fewer than 20 people, how can they fully engage if they don’t know where to turn?

This is my challenge to you. Organise yourselves. It’s no use waiting for others to put structures in place and then bemoan the lack of progress made. Use your networks and knowledge to find solutions.

Today’s report makes several recommendations for all parties involved in promoting and providing apprenticeships:

  • the government should build on the reforms already underway to ensure the growth in apprenticeships enhances learners’ skills and prospects for long-term employment through good-quality training, focusing on the industries with the strongest demand for a skilled workforce
  • schools and further education and skills providers should provide impartial careers guidance about apprenticeships to all pupils and their parents, and prepare students for work by ensuring they develop the personal and employability skills that employers value
  • providers of apprenticeships should ensure apprenticeship provision is of a high standard and enables apprentices to develop the increasingly complex skills needed by employers
  • employers should agree their contributions to the apprenticeship, such as time, resources and funding, and ensure that apprenticeships do more than simply assess existing skills
  • Ofsted should ensure that inspections focus on evaluating the impact of apprenticeships on enhancing the nation’s skills set

The findings of the report are informed by interviews and conversations with over 1,400 individuals. Ofsted visited 22 further education and skills providers and inspectors interviewed 106 managers, 30 stakeholders, 108 teaching and support staff and 89 employers. They also held discussions with 188 apprentices. The views of a further 709 apprentices and 204 employers were collected via online and paper-based correspondence.

Notes to editors

  1. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) regulates and inspects to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages. It regulates and inspects childcare and children’s social care, and inspects the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), schools, colleges, initial teacher training, work-based learning and skills training, adult and community learning, and education and training in prisons and other secure establishments. It assesses council children’s services, and inspects services for looked after children, safeguarding and child protection.

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