Exclusive: ESFA gives millions to apprenticeship providers that have failed to meet standards

More than 40 colleges and providers with notices of concern or serious breach against them have been allocated extra funding, while highly regarded organisations have lost out

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Dozens of colleges and providers have been allocated millions in non-levy apprenticeship funding by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), despite being singled out by the agency for not meeting acceptable quality or financial standards, Tes can reveal.

Forty-five organisations censured by the ESFA for poor performance have been allocated non-levy funds, according to Tes analysis of current notices of concern or serious breach, published last week – and the list of those awarded funding.

A significant number of organisations have failed to meet minimum standards in apprenticeships, with 14 in this category. In addition, five have failed to meet minimum standards in education and training.

Almost 30 organisations have been allocated funds despite having notices of concern or serious breach regarding their finances. Some, such as Cornwall College and Stoke-on-Trent College, have needed emergency funding from the ESFA.

Rewards for failure

Two organisations, Easton and Otley College and Essex County Council, have notices of concern due to an inadequate rating by Ofsted inspectors.

Sunderland City Council, which already has a notice of concern against it for failing to meet minimum standards in apprenticeships, was rated "inadequate" by Ofsted last month.

Notices of concern or serious breach are only issued by the ESFA when an organisation do not meet acceptable quality and financial standards. When a notice is lifted, or a schedule of a notice is lifted, it will not be included in the next published list.

Telford College is one of four organisations with multiple notices against them. Graham Guest, the college’s principal and chief executive, said: “There was no detailed justification and feedback provided by the Department for Education on bids across the sector including our bid for the college”.

Improvement needed

Tes has also established that more than half of the colleges and providers were allocated funding despite Ofsted rating their apprenticeship provision as "requires improvement". 

Mark Dawe, chief executive, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), said: “This looks ridiculous when there are many 'good' and 'outstanding' providers who have been denied contracts.”

Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive, the Association of Colleges (AoC), commented: “Colleges teach a wide range of courses and have experienced eight years of austerity. The issues that motivate an area of concern may have nothing to do with‎ apprenticeships. It would make little sense for ESFA to prevent small employers from continuing to train their apprentices at a college just because of a notice of concern.”

He added: “There are some colleges who have improvement notices relating to apprenticeships but these notices result from historic performance in frameworks many of which are being replaced."

Breach to be lifted

A spokesman for Sunderland City Council said the council was "naturally very disappointed" about Ofsted's findings. “We have already put an improvement plan in place and are addressing the major issues raised. Inspectors acknowledged that the majority of learners complete their courses and achieve their qualifications and that the curriculum has been developed to serve both local employment and community needs well.

A spokesperson for Seevic College, one of several colleges to have failed to meet minimum standards of apprenticeships, said: “The reason for the notice being served to the college’s apprenticeship provision was due to a single subcontractor not meeting the minimum levels of performance in one apprenticeship pathway. That contract has been terminated”.

The British Printing Industries Federation is one of the providers to have been issued with a notice of serious breach for failing to meet minimum standards in apprenticeships. Charles Jarrold, its chief executive, told Tes: “We have met with the ESFA, where we explained the reasons behind the breach, outlined the then current position and what our plan of action was going forward. The outcome is that we now await the next set of published data for the breach to be lifted.”

Dimensions Training Solutions has also been censured for failing to meet apprenticeship standards. This was due to “significant irregularities” with paperwork when the business was bought from its previous owner, according to Wayne Janse Van Rensburg, the company’s chief executive. He said: “We have made the ESFA fully aware of facts of the case and hence I can only assume this was taken into account when our application for a non-levy contract was being considered.”

Top-rated organisations refused funding

The latest allocations of non-levy funding, announced last December, have proved controversial because of a number of high-profile providers missing out. Around 20 colleges failed to get any funding, according to the AoC. It said that some colleges who submitted bids assessed as high quality missed out because their bid was too low, while others failed because their application was judged not good enough, despite them having strong track records in apprenticeships. Many providers rated "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted have also been denied non-levy funding, according to the AELP.

To date, at least 50 complaints have been made to the ESFA over the way funds have been allocated. Nine of these complaints have been considered, with five upheld. A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is normal practice for a complaints route to be put in place for funding rounds like this. Of the hundreds of applications received by the department for this fund, only a small number chose to bring forward a complaint about our decision, with an even smaller number of those complaints being upheld.”

'A complete shambles'

Exeter College, rated "outstanding" by Ofsted, is one of those to have been refused non-levy funding. Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, told Tes: “It does seem to have been a complete shambles. This raises further concerns about the whole way this contracting round has been run, when top-performing colleges like Exeter, with a superb track record of delivering apprenticeships locally, lose out and yet failing organisations don’t. It really further knocks my confidence in the way this whole issue has been handled”.

Another organisation that failed to secure any non-levy funding was the Newcastle and Stafford College Group. Karen Dobson, its principal and chief executive, said: “It’s frustrating and disappointing that a financially outstanding college with apprenticeship performance in the top 5 per cent of colleges hasn’t been successful in the non-levy tender process.”

She added: “In any tender process it would seem to be sensible to have gateway criteria that involve high performance both in terms of outcomes and financial sustainability.”

A spokeswoman for the ESFA said: “All contracts were awarded following a rigorous procurement process. Successful providers have gone through strict due diligence to safeguard the use of public money ahead of contracting. All providers will be closely performance managed in line with agency procedures.”

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