The revised inspection framework for FE: What quality management and delivery looks like

Getting used to these changes has been a challenge for everyone over the last few weeks. And Ofsted’s revised inspection framework, which came into force in September 2019, puts a greater emphasis on the substance of the curriculum and takes a learner-centric approach. Ofsted expert Dr Chris Jones explains what this looks like in practice.

What do employees and providers of apprenticeships need to demonstrate to meet the criteria for the Ofsted’s new inspection framework?

First of all, inspectors will expect to see detailed initial assessment against the requirements of the standard, so that we all know where the apprentices started from. In order to meet requirements that are set by the ESFA and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, it’s important to identify the knowledge, skills and behaviours that the apprentice already has in relation to the apprenticeship that they are applying for.

For a new starter that has very little experience – perhaps a school leaver or an adult who’s been unemployed for some time, then it’s more or less a blank slate. But it’s slightly different for apprentices who are already existing employees, or those who are moving from a level two to a level three apprenticeship within the same occupational route. Then, providers really need to think about what they need to be taught or what skills they need to develop in order to demonstrate a higher level of capability from what they know already.

So essentially, you’re talking about benchmarking where learners are starting from so that providers can accurately set expectations?

Exactly, because one of the things inspectors look for is progress over time. For some apprentices, this might be slow and steady. For others with more experience, knowledge and skills behind them, then we might expect a more rapid rate of progress if the apprentices are on the same level of standard. So, it’s about putting the learner at the centre of the curriculum design, and layering knowledge and skills to allow the learner to become more expert in aspects of their job.

What kind of practice might result in employers not meeting Ofsted’s judgement criteria?

On inspections where a new provider is deemed to be inadequate or requiring improvement, what inspectors most often see is that apprentices don’t know they’re on an apprenticeship. Learners may not be fully aware of what the end-point assessment might look like, because nobody’s thought about it. Or, the teaching and learning that’s taking place is really covering the skills and knowledge that they already have.

Assuming that providers have looked very carefully at what apprentices can do already, it might be appropriate to reduce the length of the apprenticeship for some learners to account for what they already know. Quite often, inspectors find that providers haven’t done that, and all the apprentices on the standard are doing the same thing at the same time. And yet, some have been employed for five years and already have knowledge and experience behind them. In those instances, an 18-month apprenticeship, for example, could probably have been reduced to 12.

Conversely, inspectors find that some providers rush apprentices onto the next level of apprenticeship when the job they’re doing doesn’t enable them to demonstrate the knowledge, skills and behaviours required at that higher level. This means they could be judged as either requiring improvement or inadequate because the curriculum is not appropriate for those people on that programme.

What are you looking for when assessing quality of delivery?

Inspectors have no fixed view about how delivery takes place – whether it’s face to face, distance learning, on-line or blended. What they are concerned with is the learning that takes place, not the type of delivery. Inspectors want to see that teachers, developers, mentors and coaches have the appropriate subject knowledge and occupational experience to be able to teach and train apprentices appropriately. In assessing the quality of education, inspectors also look at its impact – do all the apprentices achieve the qualification, and go on to get a job (or sustain the job they are in?). By the end of the apprenticeship, apprentices should be able to meet all the competencies required in the framework or standard and be able to operate independently and fluently.

Ideally, they will have a really clear view about what’s next for them. The next steps don’t have to be immediate, but it might be that through developing new knowledge and skills they are elevated to higher levels of responsibility or even leaving their current employer for a new job. What we are looking for is progress within the occupational route. Do apprentices, for example, know about the opportunities available to them, in time, with their current employer? Do they know what opportunities open up for them elsewhere in their chosen sector because of what they have learned?

What does good leadership and management look like?

That’s really about having systems in place to give managers the information they need to know that the programme is going to plan. That the apprentices are on track; that teachers are carrying out assessments at an appropriate time to ensure that apprentices stay on track; and that additional support systems kick in when apprentices have fallen behind.

A good example is apprentices who have been furloughed because of coronavirus – or who needed a break in learning for other reasons, like maternity or paternity leave. Can they get the support they need to do some of their study work at home? Will they get additional support to catch up when they come back? Does the curriculum plan account for the time apprentices might need to consolidate their learning, and develop the appropriate occupational skills related to what they learned when away from work?

If non-specialists are delivering the teaching or training, then inspectors would be looking at what staff development leaders and managers have put in place to ensure that staff have the skills and knowledge they need.

Within leadership and management there’s also a section around governance. Developing governance, from an apprenticeship and employer perspective, is about identifying who has line of sight at the highest level to what’s going on in the apprenticeship space, and how it is held to account – because obviously, apprenticeships and training may well be a very small subset of what the employer does and is removed from the main line of business. For example, how are they asking questions about the return on investment the apprenticeship is providing over time? What benefits does the apprenticeship give to the organisation? How do they know that the training is of the highest quality?

Ofsted’s revised framework came into place last year. What wasn’t working well beforehand?

With the new inspection framework, Ofsted wanted to get away from the absolute focus on data and to refocus on the curriculum and learning. While it may seem that data presents a very clear numerical view of how well a provider is doing, that data is historic data. The validated assessment data for 2018/19 is only being published around now. It doesn’t tell you enough about what’s happening in real time.

The new methodology is more of a ‘deep dive’ – inspectors look at fewer apprentices in more detail to glean a much clearer picture about the reality of the experience for current apprentices.

What are your views regarding the changes needed to apprenticeship funding at this point in time?

We’ve seen a cycle of underfunding in further education over time, which impacts on the quality of what providers are able to do. We need to ensure that providers have the resources they need and the capacity to deliver the 20 per cent off-the job training required.

Too low a level of funding could lead providers towards minimised approaches to teaching and learning, which doesn’t enable apprentices to develop the wider range of knowledge, skills and behaviours that they need. Instead, you encourage ‘surface learning’, which allows learners to scrape through the endpoint assessment. What we really want to see is deep learning: where apprentices can draw upon and apply their learning to solve problems and work independently.

Do you think the apprenticeship Levy is working successfully?

The Levy is a force for good because it’s changed the conversations that we’re having about apprenticeships. When aligned with the introduction of apprenticeship standards, as a nation it has meant that we now have access to higher quality training.

But it’s not a perfect system, because we need to address the access to apprenticeship funding for SMEs. Since the introduction of the Levy, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of level two and three apprenticeships being taken up. I’m also very concerned about a sharp decline in the number of 16 to 19-year olds participating in apprenticeships. The pandemic has brought this into much sharper relief. There’s been talk of an ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ for young people. It will be interesting to see what that looks like in practice, and whether that guarantee will work for those young people who leave school without five good GCSEs.

Our economy is largely comprised of SMEs. If we are to mitigate skills shortages, then we need the involvement of the whole economy, not just the big players, to ensure that we develop the skills we need as a nation to thrive in the future. This is not about setting two parties up against each other within apprenticeships; but if there is to be a ladder of opportunity, then it needs to be available to all – regardless of the size of employer, regardless of starting points, regardless of social class.

If we look at the government’s industrial strategy, it identifies health and social care, STEM, digital, and construction as key areas for development for our economy. And yet, the vast majority of higher-level apprenticeships are in business administration.

With a publicly funded apprenticeship scheme, I would argue that there should be a closer alignment between industrial strategy and delivery.

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