11 Apr 2023

The apprenticeship quality assurance is not fit for purpose

EDSK researcher Eleanor Regan writes on why regulation of apprenticeship provision should be taken away from the Department for Education and focus more on the role of the employer.

The question of who is responsible for inspecting apprenticeship providers has been in a state of flux. Until recently, apprenticeship inspections were split between Ofsted and the Office for Students (OfS), even though the OfS lacked experience in conducting inspections and had no legal powers to protect the interests of apprentices studying at degree level. As a result, Ofsted was eventually (and fairly) put in charge of inspecting all apprenticeship providers in 2021.  

But two years on, is Ofsted really the right organisation to inspect apprenticeships in England? Our research at EDSK has highlighted three problems with quality assurance in the apprenticeship system that suggests otherwise.  

First, the responsibility to promote quality apprenticeships is still fragmented. For example, the Education and Funding Agency (ESFA) determines which new training providers can deliver apprenticeships, but they are a funding body with no expertise in training provision or on-site inspections. Approved providers are subsequently inspected by Ofsted (albeit up to 24 months later) but only the ESFA has the authority to remove inadequate ones from the register of providers. This fragmented landscape can leave apprentices at risk of a poor-quality experience.  

Second, Ofsted is forced to operate with limited resources. Last year £20 million was allocated to conducting inspections of further education and skills providers. However, with almost 1,600 training providers, there can be significant delays in inspectors visiting both new and existing providers – raising further concerns about whether quality is being monitored, let alone improved.  

Third, Ofsted does not check that employers can provide a high-quality experience before they recruit an apprentice – making this country an international outlier. Worse still, once an apprentice is in the workplace, Ofsted inspections focus more on whether the training provider is fulfilling their duties to support and train their apprentice rather than checking on the equally important role that the employer plays in an apprentice’s experience.  

While giving Ofsted more resources may help address some of these concerns, a much wider drive for quality improvement is now needed
Eleanor Regan, EDSK researcher

While giving Ofsted more resources may help address some of these concerns, a much wider drive for quality improvement is now needed. As such, our recent EDSK report – ‘No Train No Gain’ – recommended that the government introduces a new National Apprenticeship Inspectorate (NAI) to simplify the quality assurance landscape and tackle poor provision.  

The NAI should take over responsibility for both approving and inspecting training providers. All prospective providers would receive on-site visits before recruiting any apprentices and once approved, new providers would be inspected at six and 12 months after recruiting their first learner. Along with existing providers being inspected at least every three years rather than the current five-year intervals, these changes would keep a closer eye on the quality of providers and speed up any interventions where necessary.   

In addition, the NAI would support providers and employers by publishing ‘best practice’ advice on how to deliver high-quality apprenticeships. On-site visits would also be conducted for any employer wishing to take on an apprentice for the first time to ensure that they have the necessary staffing and expertise to deliver a good experience.  

Although there have been some improvements in recent years, the current approach to quality assurance for apprenticeships is not fit for purpose. A new and dedicated inspectorate would be the best way to create a cohesive system that prioritises the interests of apprentices above all else - a worthy goal for any future government. 

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