From education to employment

Primes & subcontractors are the stabilising force of apprenticeships

Matt Garvey, Managing Director at West Berkshire Training Consortium

This is my third riposte to Mr Roger Francis following his FE News article Goodbye Sub-Contracting, Hello Partnerships. Mr Francis and I come from diametrically opposing camps on this and many other issues but I felt that this article in particular dealt a low blow to many honourable and established providers. The author, who works for a subcontractor to two primes, might be speaking from bitter experience. Still, if I worked for either prime I’d be upset by the comment that lead providers often use subcontracting ‘as a license to print money, with extortionate charges being levied in return for very little worthwhile support.’

The view from the coalface

We’ve had some heat, let us shed a little light. Sure, there have been some distasteful headlines, but do we now run policy based on tabloid journalism? It is lazy and churlish to find one or two cases of malfeasance and then declare that the total practice is corrupt.

So I have done some leg work and been in touch with subcontractors and primes to get their opinions. Now I am not advocating for the status quo and neither am I advocating a ban on subcontracting. I am highlighting how the ‘good fight’ is often overlooked by those who want to take a cheap shot. The vast majority of partnerships are built upon quality and added-value. So while it is easy to picture a prime sitting in a room scooping a management fee from indentured subcontractors for nothing be warned; this is a caricature!

As Graham Howe, Board Member at the London Apprenticeship Company stated recently on LinkedIN

No one forces a subcontractor to work with a particular prime, it’s a free market and they can look to engage alternative primes.”

A subcontractor putting up with a ‘greedy’ prime and not receiving a good service in return should vote with their feet. Find someone who loves you rather than crying in the corner. You’re free to come and go as you please and I can assure you that any nasty extortionate primes are far outweighed by genuine and supportive organisations. We have to dispel the myth that being a subcontractor is a form of subservience.

Prime-sub relationships are entered into freely and on a basis of mutual respect.

The subcontractor view

I firmly believe that most subcontractors derive huge success from their partnership working with prime providers. They have often entered the market place thanks to their lead provider and had the protection and nurturing of their more experienced partner. The exchange of knowledge and expertise enriches the subcontractor. Here are the views of three subcontracting organisations canvassed for this article.

“The management charge of 15% has been used to provide support for us as a partner organisation.  It has been used to ensure robust QA processes are in operation including training around Observation of Teaching and Learning, to support networking and the sharing of good practice which has improved the delivery for us and across the network of other partner organisations. I believe this has impacted in all aspects of our delivery but especially with quality, equality, safeguarding, understanding our prevent duties and management of delivery. The impact and our progression has benefited from being part of this partnership, rather than if we had been a sole provider….”

Dave Willoughby

Director of Training, North Humberside Motor Trades Group Training Association

….our sub-contracting relationship with Humber Learning Consortium has given us invaluable access to SFA funding for our most vulnerable and hard to reach learners. We support small volumes of learners through long-term but intensive learning programmes and would not have been able to do so otherwise. Being fairly new and a small charitable organisation, we have had a lot to learn about SFA rules, evidencing, quality improvement and demonstrating equality impact. HLC have been there with quick and helpful responses when we have needed them. Harrogate Skills 4 Living Centre’s relationship with Humber learning consortium is a benevolent partnership , in which our learners are the winners and both organisations are able to achieve our goals.”

Stephanie Kirkman Meikle

Chief Executive, Harrogate Skills 4 Learning

‘Both companies have the same vision of ‘changing learner lives for the better’ so the partnership was a transparent and cohesive relationship from the start and a match made in heaven. One thing that was evident from WBTC was the approach of treating us like a family member so the support function ensured that any problem we had could be solved together, this made the quality of delivery and service to the learner exceptional. Over the last five years we have been through SFA audits and Ofsted together which have both resulted in excellent results, both organisations are proud of these achievements and something that has filtered through to our own directly funded provision as well. The future of the industry is uncertain with the levy just around the corner, however with the support and partnership of WBTC standing strong we will together move forward and embrace the changes.’

Martin  Butcher

Managing Director, Manley Summers

The prime view

Primes often see subcontractors as part of the family. They share a common goal and strive for excellent outcomes for employers and learners. The management fee should be fair payment for the investment in their partners’ infrastructure and expertise that will serve that provider well in the future. The greatest beneficiary is the apprentice.

‘The JGA Group has grown its Apprenticeship provision rapidly over the past two years and success rates continue to be exceptional (2015/16 overall success will be 94%). We received an Ofsted “Good” in December 2015, a high accuracy rate in a 2015 SFA audit and have a case load of 1,100 and growing. 

This success has been almost exclusively achieved through working closely with our sub-contract delivery partners. To achieve growth we have not been constantly adding new partners but have worked closely with largely consistent set of organisations and incubated the development of their provision from near zero.’

Richard Goodwin

Managing Director, JGA Group

‘As most other Lead Providers, BCTG takes a management fee from SFA contracts. The average rate is 16%, is 10% or less for priority provision such as 16-18 Apps, and no greater than 20%. For this every Provider gets a comprehensive service of Quality Improvement Support, Claims Admin & processing, subsidised recruitment & marketing and free staff CPD.

By centrally leading on quality improvement across the consortia we have increased Apprenticeship success rates by almost 20%, Overall Success for 2015/16 was 81%, well above national rates. BCTG invests heavily in developing resources and materials for both learners and Providers to improve the learner journey.’

Chris Luty

Executive Director, BCTG

‘In our inspection Ofsted reported ‘WYLP has established a rich culture of continual professional development. Both WYLP and sub-contractor staff receive a wide range of training on teaching, learning, assessment and many other topics such as safeguarding and health and safety.

Staff and managers have high expectations and expect all members of the consortium to ensure all learners succeed and have a good experience. Sub-contractors report much greater focus on the quality of their provision and the support given to them to help them improve. WYLP staff carry out extensive checks before sub-contractors are awarded a contract.’’

Alex Miles

Operations Director, West Yorkshire Learning Providers Ltd

These are credible and respected leaders in the world of apprenticeships articulating a positive and uplifting case for subcontracting. I know for a fact that such accounts are repeated up and down the country with colleges, providers, not-for-profits and employers. The irrefutable truth is that these relationships drive up quality, compliance and add value. It is a shame that the success stories fail to get as much coverage as the few primes behaving badly.

Goodbye subcontracting, hello risk

As I outlined some months ago in Subcontracting; a tried and tested formula, good quality subcontracting has been the foundation of the entire provider network since 2010. It has been the most stabilising factor for the sector. Without these partnerships the degree of quality assurance and the outcomes for learners would have suffered. For each negative experience of Primes-Sub relationships I wager I could stack up a hundred positive case studies. There is some abuse in the system but this is no reason to abandon it, after all there are failing hospitals but we’re not looking to abolish the NHS.

The rush to switch the bedrock of subcontracting and replace it with the quicksand of a free-for-all carries more risk than benefit. The last time this was attempted was through Individual Learner Accounts. At the end of that debacle there were over 8500 providers with fraud estimated at £97 million of a £290 million budget.

We all await the launch of RoATP and the role, if any of subcontracting. The government has a stated aim to reduce subcontracting and I have no issue with this. However, where it works and where it is needed, it should be permitted to continue. A procurement route for quality lead providers with a partners who wish to be subcontractors is a valid and sensible compromise on the arbitrary and unworkable rule proposed in August.

Providers in Need

In the meantime Mr Francis’ heart-wrenching account has given me an idea. I’m setting up a helpline for Subcontractors and Primes who have fallen out of love. Think 1980s, think Radio One DJ Simon Bates ‘Our tune’.

I’ve even commissioned a radio commercial which goes something along the lines of…

#Our Tune

Radio One DJ Simon Bates voiceover:  ‘Do you feel exploited, unloved and out of pocket? Is your partner greedy and extortionate? Providers in Need is an advice and support service with a very reasonable management fee. Don’t suffer in silence, call today…we’re here to help.’

Roger, I’m waiting for your call.


In addition to those organisations featured in this article I’d like to thank for their views and contributions-

Tigers Training Ltd,

Inhouse Training,

Dynamic Training UK Ltd,

Airco Centre of Excellence,

Humber Learning Consortium,

Hands-on Skills Training

The Derbyshire Network


by Matt Garvey, Managing Director at West Berkshire Training Consortium

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