Private training providers fear ignorance will cost them contracts
Private training providers fear their businesses will suffer because local authorities will ignore them when it comes to awarding education and training contracts from April.
Almost two-thirds of independent training providers have little or no confidence in local authorities' knowledge of them or their activities, according to a survey of members by the Association of Learning Providers (ALP).
And more than half had little or no confidence in their local authorities' neutrality when commissioning 16-19 education and training from April 1.
The ALP, which carried out the survey in January, said the findings raised significant concerns, not least that local authorities' ignorance of the independent training market could result in its members losing out on contracts.
Paul Eeles, the ALP's 14-19 director, said: "There is great uncertainty and angst because local authorities do not know who these providers are or how they deliver. That is a real threat and providers are fearful for their businesses.
"Another question is, do providers, some of which are quite small, have the capacity to engage with all of these different bodies? The complexity of the new system is an issue."
But comparison of the ALP's January survey with last September's showed some improvement. When asked to rate their confidence in local authorities' levels of knowledge of the independent sector, the proportion of respondents who were fairly confident rose from less than 5 per cent to more than a fifth.
However, 62 per cent said they had little or no confidence that their local authority understood ALP members.
Almost nine out of 10 (88 per cent) said that, despite concerns that local authorities knew little about the independent sector, there was no evidence that councils were requesting additional data or information to help them understand their work.
One in five members were extremely confident or fairly confident that local authorities would be "provider neutral" when it came to commissioning education and training. But just less than 53 per cent had little or no confidence in their neutrality.
Despite this, three-quarters of respondents said they had no evidence of any specific planning intentions by their local authorities that gave them cause for concern.
Similarly, 90 per cent said they had no evidence that the political influence of local councillors is reshaping local authority education policy, planning and commissioning.
Most respondents (nearly 58 per cent) felt they could be better represented on 14-19 local partnership boards while just less than 48 per cent felt they were insufficiently represented on regional planning groups.
The proportion of providers who saw an improvement in relations with their local authority rose from 20 per cent in September to 27 per cent in January. But 64 per cent said that they were about the same.
There was also a significant improvement in the proportion of independent providers who felt "fairly confident" that their local authority would be able to deliver the Machinery of Government change reforms, up from 7.9 per cent in September to just less than 24 per cent in January.
However, none of the January respondents were extremely confident that their local authorities would deliver and 37 per cent of the January respondents said they had little or no confidence in their authority's ability to deliver, while 39 per cent said they were neither confident nor unconfident.
John Freeman, director of the Local Government Association's REACT programme, which is supporting local authorities throughout the transfer process, said: "The ALP is absolutely right.
"But what I would say to independent and third sector providers is, `don't wait for local authorities to contact you, go and talk to them'."
Mr Freeman said that a key issue was how to make local authorities aware not only of what learning providers were already providing in the area but what they were delivering elsewhere and what they might deliver in the future.
"We need the independent and third sector because there are things that these providers know about and can deliver that will help us reach our widening participation goals," Mr Freeman said.
"I am working with the Young People's Learning Agency to come up with a web database of provision that could let people know what providers are doing in other areas."