There are two constituencies pretty disappointed by the invitation to tender (ITT) for non-levy apprenticeship provision which right now need some good news. There are those who passed the ITT scoring threshold but they were subject to a pro-rata system that took them beneath £200,000. This resulted in no contract. The second group are those who failed the ITT altogether but are existing, and sometimes outstanding, apprenticeship providers.
In many of these cases, these organisations represent existing contracts between employers and apprentices – they are meeting demand. Those who fell beneath the threshold have probably been subcontractors under the relaxed rules (May-December 2017). Those main providers who failed the ITT completely will not only have continuing demand for new starts but also their own subcontractors. This level of disruption is worrying in a climate where apprenticeship starts have been down.
Some commentators feel that the rules were clear and if you lose, you lose. If this is to be the case then we should mitigate the loss at least for the employers and learners that these providers represent. If we just let these colleges and providers “fail” then the knock-on will impact on the integrity of apprenticeships. How will employers view a system that deprives them of their preferred provider on the basis of “procurement”? How will apprentices view a system that makes them travel much further for their training on the basis of “procurement”?
'Stabilise the apprenticeship sector'
The cumulative impact of the apprenticeship reforms have been calamitous; a free market fantasy pursued by dreamers in Whitehall. Yet, we only need limp through until April 2019 before all providers and colleges have unfettered access to the market.
So why don’t we take a sensible and pragmatic approach to this 15-month interregnum and ensure we stabilise the sector? It isn’t the number of providers and colleges that determines the strength of the network, it is the breadth and depth of experience. The integrity of apprenticeships revolves around providing every community possible with the full range of apprenticeship programmes.
An engineering firm in Exeter unable to contract with the local college on the basis of “procurement” isn’t going to be consoled by the fact that there are new digital marketing providers in Camden. A cabinet maker in Stafford unable to get funding with the local provider on the basis of “procurement” won’t cheer up when they hear that there is a new management apprenticeship company in Durham. We can’t let capacity – much of it high-quality and in priority sectors – disappear overnight because of an ill-considered and unnecessary procurement exercise.
The solution, the emollient, is subcontracting. While there isn’t universal access to funding, there needs to be an instrument to keep good provision going. A provider that failed the ITT isn’t a failed provider. Likewise, I have no doubt that some of those who passed will not turn out to be successful.
Subcontracting, under the old rules, will preserve the collective capacity of the apprenticeship network and more importantly keep employers and apprentices happy. Pushing on with the newer, more stringent rules, will see capacity dwindle or disappear just when we need it most. There has to be a practical, tried-and-tested formula to throw a lifeline to the many good providers who simply fell afoul of a paper exercise.
That lifeline is the kind of subcontracting that has, for the last 20 years, ensured that funding flowed to where it was needed. The suspension of subcontracting rules that was in effect until 31 December needs to be renewed, it is the only logical option to stabilise a destabilised apprenticeship sector.
This sector has been battered and bruised in the name of market disruption with little or no tangible result. Now I subscribe to the theory that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but the last 12 months have taken it a step too far. The latest twist in the reforms has served to put some very good provision at risk. The ESFA faces a choice between letting that good provision die or opting for common sense. We can mitigate the risk if subcontracting under the old rules is enabled until April 2019. Friendly main providers will be there to lend a helping hand to those who need it and, whatever your philosophical view of subcontracting, it must surely be the case that the more good provision we can retain the better.
Matt Garvey is managing director of West Berkshire Training Consortium. He tweets @WBTCNewbury