Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw: Low-skilled apprenticeships are a ‘waste of time’

Chief inspector says some apprenticeships have been “devalued” by push to make them more widely available

Apprenticeships have been “diluted” because of the government’s push to increase the number on offer, making some “low-skilled” courses “a waste of time”, according to the chief schools inspector.

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In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry in the West Midlands, Sir Michael Wilshaw told business leaders “very few apprenticeships” were delivering the skills to the sectors most in need of them. The head of Ofsted criticised employers for using apprenticeships to fund “cheap labour”, when they were in fact “wasting public funds” and “abusing the trust” taxpayers placed in them.

“The fact that only 5 per cent of our youngsters go into an apprenticeship at 16 is little short of a disaster.

“Too many of our schools are failing to prepare young people for the world of work. Even where they do, the careers advice on offer isn’t encouraging enough youngsters into vocational routes that would serve them best.

“Too many of our further education providers have focussed for too long on equipping youngsters with dubious qualifications of little economic relevance. And too many employers have not engaged with schools or organised themselves effectively to make the apprenticeship system work.

Speaking to Sky News earlier, Sir Michael explained: “Those apprentices are being sold short, spending one year doing a pretty worthless job – not really an apprenticeship – and having no employment prospects at the end of it.

“That’s not fair and it’s not doing the economy any good and it’s certainly not doing those youngsters much good either.”

His comments were backed up by a special report released by the education watchdog which found there were “too many low-skilled roles are being classed as apprenticeships”.

Some 1,400 people were quizzed by Ofsted, who found there had been a significant “rise in poor quality” courses which “devalued” apprenticeships.

One third “did not provide sufficient, high quality training that stretched the apprentices.” In some cases individuals were not even aware they were on an apprenticeship.

Sir Wilshaw is calling for better local co-ordination to address the shortcomings in the system and is encouraging businesses to get more involved by taking ownership.

He said: “Why isn’t there a recognised structure to deliver apprenticeships at a local level? If the great majority of employers are SMEs, employing fewer than 20 people, how can they fully engage if they don’t know where to turn?

Industry reaction

Many organisations have responded to Ofsted’s report and Sir Wilshaw’s comments that apprenticeships are failing to equip young people with the essential skills needed within the workplace and receiving poor salaries in return for their work. 

Neil Carberry, CBI director for employment and skills: “It’s right that the Government is ambitious in raising apprenticeship numbers, but we must not allow this to come at the cost of quality.

“Business is committed to tackling the skills shortages, particularly at technician level, that many of our high-growth sectors face and there is always more employers can and should do.

“Giving employers more control over funding and allowing them to develop high-quality apprenticeships that work for industry is the best route to facing up to this growing skills gap, and will give more young people the opportunity to get a genuine foothold on the career ladder.

“Companies are worried that the introduction of the apprenticeship levy will lead to a focus only on quantity. High standards policed by an independent employer-led body is an essential part of avoiding this.”

While Ollie Sidwell, RMA co-founder and director said it was vital to hold the poor employers to account and celebrate those that were doing an “excellent job.”

“No one would suggest that these “low-level” apprenticeships (to use Ofsted’s phrase) are anything other than unwelcome, not just for the apprentices themselves, but also for their employers, although perhaps they don’t realise this. A member of staff who is given unrewarding tasks with no regard for their professional development is the corporate equivalent of just another mouth to feed. If an apprentice is simply refilling the photocopier and taking the recycling down to the bins then no one wins.

“I have to say that our experience at RateMyApprenticeship.co.uk is significantly different from that which Ofsted reports. We encourage the apprentices themselves to log on to our site and give detailed, honest feedback about every aspect of their apprenticeship or school leaver programme. We then collate this information and make it available for everyone to see; this naturally means that the very best practice is lauded whilst those who offer a poor experience are given public notice of their shortcomings.

“We hope that our system has a double effect: to empower aspiring apprentices with the knowledge of where is best to apply but also to gently encourage an improvement in apprenticeship provision across the UK. To these ends we recently published our first Top 60 Table of apprenticeship and school leaver employers, with financial services giant EY coming out on top.





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