Apprenticeship quality – a race to the bottom or an opportunity to stand tall?

The recent FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference brought together leaders from government, sector associations, colleges, training providers and employers, all hoping to shed more light on the changing landscape and establish how apprenticeship delivery will continue to change people's lives.

The one topic that continued to surface with real emotive backing was that of quality. In particular, it was noted that the sector does not wish to see a race to the bottom brought about by employer-provider negotiations on the price of delivery. Quite simply, it is essential if the apprenticeship reforms are to succeed that quality has to be protected and improved.

Yet, already there may be some signs that quality of delivery may be being jeopardised. Previously providers would regularly submit contracts of 30-40 pages, but it has already been noted that providers are now submitting far shorter documents (single figure pages), partially to avoid bamboozling the employer they wish to sign-up to their programmes, but also for a slightly more onerous reason - in order to deliver on the negotiated price point, providers are having to reduce the risk from their side.

So what does this mean for quality? Nobody wants price negotiations to start a race to the bottom where providers are forced to sacrifice quality to just deliver the basics. Furthermore, how can employers be assured of quality provision if delivery is based such abridged contracts and when 53% of providers on the RoATP are yet to be inspected under the Common Inspection Framework?

Shouldn't providers be negotiating on quality of provision instead? If they are to opt for this preferred route, then providers will need to ensure that they can support their stance with robust evidence and make real pledges to continuous quality improvement. Done properly, they'll bolster their reputation as an apprenticeship provider and improve their financial health. To do it properly, however, there are some areas providers will need to consider; here are just a few of the basics:

Visibility and transparency

Providers should be capable of supplying employers with visibility of progression through some form of Business Intelligence, live reporting and dashboards to increase employers' engagement with programme delivery and provide transparency when it comes to progression. This can also help raise awareness of likely learner success before the end-point assessment (EPA) and enable either party to make timely interventions. This point is even more pertinent when you consider who pays for EPA re-sits. Some contracted agreements may see this shared between employer and provider, but where providers are reducing their own risk, employers will want to be careful not to expose themselves to unbudgeted costs of putting their learners back through the EPA, especially in cases where the Standard requires full EPA and not just a partial re-sit based on the failed modules. Getting visibility of the right data at the right time in front of the right stakeholders is a good start and helps with the ongoing relationship or partnership.

Admitting your weaknesses is not a weakness

If the provider has not been inspected then they should at least have a good handle on their own quality improvement plan, for their own benefit but also to enable them to give robust, evidence-backed quality statements to the employer. At the heart of any quality improvement plan worth producing, is robust self-assessment. After all, you can only turn a weakness into a strength by firstly acknowledging its existence, so honest judgement must underpin the quality improvement process and this means involving staff from around the business to give a true picture, rather than relying on one manager's view.

Measure quality and continue to measure quality

Once-a-year self-assessment rarely reflects the true nature of the organisation and does not lead to continuous improvement.

Clearly the worst-case scenario for any provider, and their employer partners, is that they are removed from the RoATP because quality drops and is deemed inadequate by inspection. So continuous quality improvement should be truly continuous and brought to the fore in the business, making it simple for providers to indicate and evidence to employers their strengths whilst addressing any identified weaknesses.

At this year's FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference, an inspector running a workshop on improving quality and performance discussed how some providers had embraced the quality agenda, organising much of their business around quality KPIs as they realise so much of their operations are directly linked to quality – teaching and learning, learner experience and satisfaction, employer experience and satisfaction, outcomes, and communication. So their self-assessment and quality improvement plan became a live process and a regular board agenda item. And naturally, the quality of their delivery increased and they gained an edge over their competitors.

A role for both providers and employers

The quality agenda in apprenticeship delivery is huge, and employers will have to play their part, but that doesn’t mean providers themselves can simply be reactive. Those providers able to display transparency of progression for learners and support this with well-judged and evidenced quality statements will ultimately be the ones able to stand tall, be less likely to have to join the race to the bottom on price and will also bolster their reputation in the market. For their part, employers have (and are paying for!) the right to demand that transparency and the assurance that quality is at the heart of the provider's delivery.

Webinar: Improving quality and performance over time

Mat Kirby

Mat Kirby

Mat has worked in the FE & Skills sector for 10 years specialising in the field of educational management solutions. He is currently the Marketing Business Partner at Tribal for Further Education in the UK working on projects to support providers through the changing FE & Skills landscape.

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