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Why are ESFA keeping a low profile over Learndirect?

Tony Allen, CEO, Allen Apprenticeships and Skills

So, Learndirect have failed in their attempt to avoid ‘justice’, and now what many of us have known for some time is out in the public domain: their provision is officially ‘Inadequate’. The ESFA have given them until July next year to finish learners before it withdraws funding. On the face of it, this is a travesty for the reputation of the Apprenticeship brand, that the Oftsed grade only applies to part of the Learndirect business.


The newly created Learndirect Apprenticeships is not affected by the ruling. So for those levy paying employers who have signed up with Learndirect, it can be business as usual! Perhaps the senior team at LD saw the bad inspection coming, and split the business?! However, Ofsted can always decide to inspect a provider at any time, even ‘new’ ones, so perhaps they will not be fooled by this blatant attempt to avoid a proper outcome.

Whatever the rationale, I believe that Learndirect need to look carefully in the mirror as to why they are now officially ‘Inadequate’. However, are they solely to blame for their predicament? Could it be that the ESFA have a case to answer as to why they let the UK’s largest private provider get into this position?

Just before I left the then SFA, part of my team who managed the largest 40 private providers was disbanded. In total, the team of six people managed contracts worth £630m. We guided and supported providers through such quagmires as inspections, audits, growth requests, and encouraged them to enrol more apprentices. They knew that we were ‘keeping an eye on them’, but hopefully they considered it a positive experience. We were successful….81% of our provision was Ofsted ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ and the growth in apprenticeships from those 40 providers was double that of the rest of the college and provider base. It was effective contract management, which protected the public purse, managed the risk and ensured focus on government priorities.

Then, as part of the staffing reductions of two years ago, the SFA decided that we were no longer needed. It was made clear to me that this type of contract management was not part of a ‘funding body’s’ role. No-one seemed interested in managing the risk, or in promoting apprenticeship growth The focus seemed to change over-night from being concerned as to how public money was being utilised, to frankly, appeasing Minister’s desires to cut staffing levels.

I pointed out to the senior team the implications of what they were doing, but it seemed like there was no agenda other than reducing the number of staff at the SFA.

Now you might think that this is a classic case of sour grapes on my part, and you could argue that it is not role of government to closely monitor providers in the way that we did. I would disagree with both assertions!

There is a correlation between how the then SFA managed private providers and the outcomes that we were trying to achieve. I have already said that we were successful as a team, and look at what has happened since! In the two and a half years that the team existed, none of the 40 providers failed and none had inadequate inspections. Since the team was disbanded, we have seen the demise of Positive Outcomes and First4Skills and serious problems at Learndirect. All were formerly in the top 40 group.

If the ESFA still had a team in place managing providers as effectively as we did would they have prevented these problems?

I am certainly not saying that. However, my point is that they would have had their finger much more closely on the pulse, and would have been aware much earlier of the problems that the particular large providers were facing..

Whilst the ESFA have some ‘light-touch’ provider management in place now, I believe that they should reflect on the last year, and think about the depth of their knowledge of the key providers.

In my view ESFA need to share some of the responsibility for what has happened, and not just with Learndirect. Can you think of anywhere else in the public sector where a contractor with over £100m per year of government funding would effectively just be allowed to ‘get on with it’? As a tax payer, I hope not!

Tony Allen, CEO, Allen Apprenticeships and Skills

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