Apprenticeships: how to find a quality provider
There has been a marked decline in the quality of apprenticeship providers since the Apprenticeship Levy began, which makes it more important than ever before for businesses to seek better value. Here are some tips for organisations on how to find a quality apprenticeship provider.
Apprenticeships can be an extremely effective way for organisations to bring in a new generation of aspiring professionals or to upskill existing personnel with important new qualifications.
While often still thought of as relating only to manual trade careers, apprenticeships are increasingly used to develop in-demand technical skills such as cyber security, a field with a continually widening skills gap.
The ability of an organisation to reap these benefits very much depends on the capabilities of the apprenticeship provider they have partnered with, however, and the industry is in the midst of a quality crisis.
In fact, the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s (ESFA) apprenticeship register now lists more than 40 banned providers, with the number growing steadily over 2019.
Providers on the list have been banned from taking on new apprentices until they improve their standards.
Why has quality become an issue?
There are many factors that may be influencing the standards of the apprenticeship industry. One of the biggest issues has been the industry reaction to the government’s Apprenticeship Levy.
Taking the form of a tax that came into effect in April 2017, the levy requires all UK employers with a payroll exceeding £3m to contribute 0.05% of their total payroll to fund apprenticeship activity.
The government contributes an additional 10% to each monthly payment.
These funds are then held by HMRC and can be accessed by organisations to finance apprenticeship operations.
One of the most common problems is a failure to ensure that apprentices are genuinely being given new skills and experiences as part of their course.
Any money left unclaimed after 24 months will be added to the national apprenticeship pot instead.
The intent behind the levy was to make apprenticeships more financially appealing for businesses, as well as providing better access to funds for smaller organisations.
Unfortunately, the ‘use it or lose it’ aspect meant that many organisations launched apprenticeship activity with the primary aim of reclaiming tax money, rather than any particular goal for skills development.
This created a surge of new contract opportunities that providers scrambled to meet – sometimes regardless of if they had the capacity to fulfill them adequately.
Where are providers falling short?
Investigations from Ofsted have uncovered a wide variety of quality issues.
One of the most common problems among the 40-plus providers currently on the banned list is a failure to ensure that apprentices are genuinely being given new skills and experiences as part of their course.
Several providers have been accused of simply accrediting existing skills already possessed by the candidates.
In one particularly telling example, Ofsted’s report on a large provider found that leaders had not ensured that the courses were meeting the requirements of apprentices or their employers.
Having a strong idea of their needs will make it easier to find a provider that will measure up.
The report also found most apprentices had a poor learning experience with limited gains in skills and knowledge, and worse yet, many seemed to be unaware that they were even completing an apprenticeship programme at all.
Cases like this are usually the result of a poor consultation process at the start of the engagement. Failing to support candidates is another common problem, often caused by a lack of available development coaches.
Without adequate support, candidates are likely to struggle with balancing working with their employer against their learning and development goals, leading to issues with completing and submitting coursework.
Several of the providers on the EFSA’s banned list have suffered from high percentages of candidates dropping out early or failing to complete their course on time.
How can organisations find a quality provider?
Before selecting an apprenticeship partner, organisations should take the time to properly assess their skill development needs, as well as factors such as timescales, resources, and business objectives.
Having a strong idea of their needs will make it easier to find a provider that will measure up. Given the ongoing quality issues in the industry, firms must also undertake a proper assessment of potential providers.
Below are some of the most important factors in determining quality.
Ofsted reports can be a good source of detailed insight into a provider’s capabilities and track record, making them a logical first port of call.
While providers that have been rated 'outstanding’ or ’good’ would be the obvious choice, a provider rated as ‘requires improvement’ may still be viable depending on the nature of the issue and the provider’s progress in addressing it.
High achievement rates
One of the most telling signs of a course’s quality is the number of candidates successfully completing their courses, known as the achievement rate.
While it is natural for some candidates to drop out or fail to complete the course, firms should be sure to compare a provider with their peers and ask for explanations if the rates are significantly lower.
The national average achievement rate for apprenticeships stood at 67.3% in 2018, but rates can vary dramatically based on level and field.
Art, media and publishing courses stood at 62.2% for example, while ICT courses were above the national average at 71.6%.
Providers with a high level of experience in the industry are generally preferable as they are likely to have well-established processes and knowledgeable personnel.
Standards can still slip at even the most well established providers, however, so organisations should balance experience against current performance.
Depending on the company’s needs, a smaller and more agile market newcomer may also be a better fit if it has the resources for the job.
It can also be beneficial to partner with a provider that has a proven track record in a particular field.
This is particularly important when it comes to highly specialised and fast-moving sectors such as cyber security, where courses will need to accommodate the latest trends and developments.
While it may take some time to correct the quality issues in the apprenticeship industry, organisations that take the time to properly assess their provider can avoid wasting time and resources on an inferior course that will fail to deliver the essential skills they need.
Interested in this topic? Read Apprenticeship levy: changing perceptions could reap rewards.
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Steve is an expert in training and development, with more than 29 years’ experience. He is a key stakeholder in the launch of RPS’s Cyber security Apprenticeship programme, helping organisations recruit and train talented candidates into fully certified and qualified cyber security professionals.