How does government demand for quantity impact apprenticeship quality?

Introduction: The Current Context

Since 2015, the Government has driven improvement in apprenticeships. This programme of reform was responsible for the launch of the levy and the introduction of standards, amongst other changes.

In 2019, Ofsted revised its inspection criteria, releasing the New Educational Framework. The emphasis of this NEF was on intent, implementation, and impact, with much-reduced credit given to achieving data-driven outcomes. With the apprenticeship reform's introduction of the behavioural standards, and now Ofsted introducing two of only four criteria that focus directly on these components, many providers are rightly worried about their next inspection visit.

This article is the first in a series of short reads covering the pain points faced by apprenticeship training providers in this new world.

In this first piece we take a look at the challenges presented by government demands for a high quantity of new starts, while ensuring quality delivery and completion of the apprenticeship within profitable time limits.

Government demands for quantity and quality

Any additional funding into apprenticeships is to be welcomed. The mention of lifelong skills training in the Queen’s Speech in 2021 gave important recognition to the role of training providers.

However, the need to crudely define return on investment to an electorate means that success is defined in blunt terms. The Government set a target of 3,000,000 starts on apprenticeships, and it fell short by 60,000, but the numbers onboarded were still lauded as something of a success and offered a good news story for the media.

In the same period, achievement rates dropped rapidly from the highs of 2017, falling well short of Government expectations.

While politicians laud this as a success of Government policy and a failure of providers to deliver, there is a more objective perspective. It was, after all, pointed out at the policy launch that apprenticeship achievement should be prioritised over starts, as low achievement rates would surely be the outcome. The high surge in numbers brought quantity without the space, or incentive, for providers to offer the necessary quality. Systems and structures were put under pressure, and some organisations onboarded apprentices in the thousands without any programme in place: Train2Gain repeating itself!

There was never a chance for training providers to adapt to effectively deliver the new standards, let alone cope with the new Ofsted framework.

Finding a simple way to map the standards and match this to appropriate levels of evidence of progress is a problem. This means that most training providers are forced to rely heavily on Quality and Compliance officers to ensure adequate delivery to meet both Ofsted and funding requirements.

The ideal solution would be a means of managing the quantity while ensuring the quality of delivery. More importantly, that this quality of delivery is within the control of the learning facilitator and not a compliance officer.

It is not surprising that the mapping and evidencing of the standards have become an administrational task. However, such an approach lacks the intent to develop the learning that Ofsted requires. Equally, it is difficult to argue impact, when much of what is evidenced is only tangentially relevant or was demonstrated through prior learning.

A digital solution that empowers the learner to become independent in the development of their behaviours offers a quality response that can be rolled out to a high quantity of learners. The Entelechy learning platform increases the efficiency of learning, as not only does it encourage an exploration of the Character Qualities that underpin the behaviours, but it shapes an attitude to develop that encourages personal agency.

Having hundreds of learners is a positive for both government and training provider, if those learners are offered an experience they require, and which is meaningful. If those learners are empowered with the capabilities to thrive in learning and in the workplace, it is possible to have that cake and eat it too.