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Supply agency purchase creates largest private training company

A VENTURE capital firm has created the country's largest private education and training operation with a round of corporate buying and selling.

Protocol Associates, the education and training provider, has bought the education division of Initial Personnel Services from Bridgepoint Capital for pound;6 million.

The move follows Bridgepoint's purchase of Initial Personnel Services from Rentokill Initial in a pound;27m buy-out. Protocol itself was bought by Bridgepoint for pound;39m in December 1999.

"As a result of the IPS acquisition, Protocol will become the largest provider of education and training services in the UK," said a spokesman for Bridgepoint.

Protocol says it now has a database of 80,000 lecturers for post-16 education in the UK. Another of its divisions, Protocol Training, describes itself as the largest provider of government-funded post-16 training. Bridgepoint's strategy is to subsume all purchased companies into Protocol's three divisions rather than leave them as arms-length subsidiaries.

Other companies bought by Protocol include Tektra, which is involved in information technology partnerships with colleges, and Step Direct, which provides food and retail training.

London-based IPS Education was founded in 1993. It has 500 to 550 FE lecturers in London classrooms each week and was one of the first supply businesses to source teachers from overseas, especially Australia, Canada and South Africa.

Protocol Associates already owns Nottngham-based lecturer supply agency ELS and paid pound;74.3m for the skills and education arms of the Spring Group in December.

NATFHE, the lecturers union, is concerned that increasing numbers of colleges could find themselves in "unhealthy" business relationships, effectively competing for training with the same company which provides a proportion of their lecturers.

"We would hope that colleges would get round this problem by bringing lecturers who are currently employed by agencies under the direct control of the college they work in.

"This would seem to be the best way of dealing with the situation and, in any case, would seem to be good employment practice," said general secretary Paul Mackney.

Geoff Lennox, Protocol's chief executive, says the union's concern shows a lack of understanding about the marketplace.

"I understand NATFHE's position," he said, "and we don't agree with it. We have relationships with 200-odd colleges and they are perfectly capable of deciding who they have relationships with."

Spring Education supplies around 1,800 teachers to schools in London and the West. Spring Skills provides vocational training, mainly in information technology and administration, throughout the UK.

Protocol wants to take advantage of the new climate under the Learning and Skills Council, and the increasing opportunities for companies to compete with colleges to provide vocational training in a market worth pound;5 billion a year.

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