APPRENTICESHIPS: A QUESTION OF QUALITY
Louise Doyle, director at Mesma, on ensuring the quality of apprenticeships...
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.
• 17/18 - Ofsted graded 58% of apprenticeship provision was at least good
• 16/17 - 49% at least good
• 15/16 - 63% at least good
• 14/15 - 51% at least good
What is perhaps more useful to highlight, is the reasons for the grade profile, have remained consistent during that time. I believe there is a high risk that the % won’t have improved by 2020. My rationale for considering this to be a risk is based on:
Frameworks to standards challenge
As the scaffolding of a well-understood, step-by-step framework is dismantled, trainers have looked to others to replace it. 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’?
But 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.
The introduction of end-point assessment is one of the biggest changes we’re experiencing because of the reforms. My guess is that we will 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 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.
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. We must safeguard against a reductionist approach as best we can, by learning from elsewhere in the education system. This is an opportunity for policymakers, target setters and an inspection regime to move beyond data as far as is realistic.
Employers: champion or thief?
The champion or thief of quality apprenticeships are employers. A bold statement, so bear with me. The decision maker who signed the apprenticeship contract may not be the day-to-day mentor - so the mentor/ line manager is key to success. 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.
A perfect storm in apprenticeships
A perfect storm is brewing. While I like the proposed education inspection framework, I also understand there are those who harbour concerns. The overall direction of travel is good - the focus for inspection is towards education providers who will need to demonstrate delivery of an impactful, well-crafted curriculum, and the rationale behind it.
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 can revolutionise an education system that has relied too long on a single track through A-level to university. Yet it can only do so if the quality on offer is in harmony with other parts of the education system. There is much for us to be positive about with the provision that is good. I look forward to the day an annual report tells us that 80% of in-year inspected apprenticeship provision is at least good.
Read more on apprenticeships at www.mesma.co.uk