Over the summer of 2017, bid writers, providers and specialist contractors met in huddled groups to prepare their submissions for the second attempt at accessing non-levy apprenticeship funding - £650m of funding to be exact. The first attempt earlier in the year was cancelled with comments that it hadn’t been clearly thought through, and with more submissions than expected coming in being mooted, as well as others being used.
Subsequently, and after the snap general election, it was relaunched with a very tight deadline of a few weeks, over a period of time when most skills provider staff were due to be taking a well-earned summer rest and recharge of the batteries in time for the start of the new academic year. That was not to be – 10,000 words were required to determine the future of many organisations.
An unprecedented number of questions from providers, along with a number of almost immediate changes by the ESFA to the evidence requirements, forced an extended period of time in which to return applications. What should have been a reasonably simple tendering process became an almost meltdown experience for all.
The results were due to be announced to the successful providers on November 21, but this was postponed until December 7 when the list of successful organisations was finally published.
And yet again we have anomalies and controversy.
Out of the 714 who were successful, almost a third (224) have no record of apprenticeship delivery for 2015-2016. We can argue that this will bring new blood and exciting, innovative delivery to the apprenticeships market, but we can also argue that we need stability, experience and consistency in delivery whilst the hiatus of policy and funding reform are still hot embers in the fire.
The contracts awarded show that some regions have lost out in a big way with London, West Midlands and South East being worst affected. Providers in these areas are coming to terms with contracts worth a third of what they bid for. Conversely, the East of England came out best – but providers were still only getting two thirds of their tender application.
The controversial method of pro rata allocations per region has apparently whittled down the provider base to what may be deemed a “more manageable size”. Questions to be asked include “How manageable will it be to hand-hold brand new providers whilst still providing the same level of service to successful existing ones?” and “Will this allocation methodology enhance provision in underrepresented sectors and regions or remove successful provision in others?”. How many national providers, both colleges and independents, have rewritten their business plans to take account of regional losses and gains, how many are no longer represented in sectors once strong for them, and how many will basically cease to function?
With the government still actively promoting the 3 million apprenticeship starts mantra by 2020, this tender process has certainly shook the sector up somewhat. New blood replacing the old guard, expected start dates of delivery of January 2018, established providers and employers no longer being able to work together because of interpretation and scoring. OFSTED too will have their hands full – new providers will need close monitoring. Not many outstanding providers next year is a looming possibility.
NCFE will continue to support its customers through this turbulent time. It may well say goodbye to some as their applications were unsuccessful and hello to others who are brand new to the game. What is clear and certain is that we all have to work with the outcome, which may include a recount, and move forward together for the benefit of the learners, SMEs, providers and the sector and economy in general. Come what may we must be ready to support the skills needs of the future.