Where is the rescue mission?

14th March 2008 at 00:00

Funding quango is silent over 25,000 trainees left in limbo after collapse of Carter and Carter

Ministers' love affair with private-sector trainers could be waning as colleges prepare to pick up the pieces following the collapse of Carter and Carter.

The firm was symbolic of the policy of giving the private sector an increased role in vocational training - competing successfully against colleges under the leadership of the firm's charismatic chief executive, Phillip Carter.

But its star began to fall after his death in a helicopter crash in May, which was followed by a plunge in the share price.

Shares were suspended from trading in October and this week the company went into administration - with 25,000 students on its books at training centres across the UK. It also provides in-house training and is a major provider of apprenticeships and work-based Train to Gain.

Ioan Morgan, a leading principal who was founding chairman of the 157 Group of colleges, has told FE Focus his colleagues had seen the crisis coming for several months.

He said there had been "concern among colleges" over the lack of a rescue plan in the time which has passed since the share suspension. "Perhaps this gives us a chance to value the public sector because the public sector gives stability," said Mr Morgan.

"The trend has been to provide more and more training work to the private sector. The number of 25,000 students is a lot for 400 colleges to deal with, but we will pull together and do our best for them.

"I hope this will be an opportunity to review that balance and to learn to value the public sector's role in education once again."

David Russell, director of resources at the Learning and Skills Council, said: "We will work with the administrators to protect the interests of learners and ensure public funds are safeguarded."

The quango refused to comment further - or to explain what plan, if any, was in place to protect the firm's trainees.

The Learning and Skills Act 2000, which created the council of the same name (LSC), prevents ministers from telling the quango which companies it can do business with. On October 17 - two weeks after trading in Carter and Carter shares was suspended - the Department for Work and Pensions signed a deal, worth pound;15m over three years, making the firm the "preferred bidder" to run the "Pathways to Work" programme in north-east Yorkshire and Cheshire.

Since then, the LSC has continued to fund Carter and Carter and its subsidiaries across the country.

Announcing the deal to the City, the firm's chief executive Rodney Westhead, said: "This provides us with an excellent opportunity to build on our already strong relationship with DWP and be closely involved with the future shaping and delivery of the Government's welfare to work strategy."

One of the highest-profile operations to be taken over by Carter and Carter was the Craig Phillips Building Skills centre, run by the first winner of Big Brother and based in his native Liverpool. It opened with a fanfare of publicity in 2005. The decision to fund the centre was an LSC idea, using Knowsley College as the conduit for the cash, but the funding was effectively pulled by Sir George Sweeney, who was then principal, after a quality assessment of the centre's work. His intervention came too late to prevent the LSC investing pound;100,000 in the centre to help with start-up costs. The centre, now part of Carter and Carter, faces fresh uncertainty as administrators decide which parts of the collapsed giant can be kept alive as going concerns.

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