From education to employment

RoATP – The Case for Market Entrants

Jim Carley, Managing Director, Carley Consult Ltd
Following the publication of the first Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP), the rigor of the SFA’s selection process has come under fire, but is this criticism fully justified?
Over 1,700 organisations made it onto RoATP at the first attempt. This included several start-up providers with little or, indeed, potentially no prior experience of delivering apprenticeships. This has dismayed some critics, especially where some FE colleges with an established record of apprenticeship delivery failed to make the first RoATP cut. So, did the SFA get it wrong?
A core principle of commissioning is that of contestability. If the apprenticeship market is only ever limited to those organisations with specific experience of prior delivery, then the whole premise of procurement is redundant. You just end up with the same suppliers, with roll over contracts, offering the same service, with limited scope to test new ideas, innovation and fresh approaches. Ultimately the market will stagnate. If that was what the Government, or indeed employers, wanted, then there would have been no case for apprenticeship reform. New blood is essential to any market.
Let’s not forget too that the SFA has presented few opportunities for market entrants to secure direct contracts in recent years, with open tendering primarily limited to ESF competitions, traditionally dominated by established primes. In this respect RoATP has not just been an opportunity for market entrants, it has also been an opportunity for medium sized subcontractors to step-up from the supply chain, and cut the apron strings from their prime providers.
Quite rightly, the RoATP process was designed to test the underlying competencies of organisations to deliver apprenticeships, which embraced the potential for market entrants. The key assessment areas were: the proposed apprenticeship model; internal management arrangements; experience of working with employers; expertise of staff and leaders; data management arrangements, and; safeguarding. A prior record of apprenticeship delivery was, quite rightly, not a mandatory requirement. The actual criteria presented a reasonable level playing field for all providers. These were transparent from the outset. Those complaining that the criteria should have placed more emphasis on past apprenticeship delivery should, arguably, have made that case at the start of the process, not after the Register has been published. The proverbial ship has already sailed.
For those established apprenticeship providers and colleges who did not make the Register at the first attempt, the reason is most likely to relate to a poor quality RoATP submission that failed to do justice to their competency, knowledge and expertise. Good providers and colleges are more than capable of writing poor bids and funding applications. The message for such providers and colleges is clear; invest more in, and place greater priority on, your business development strategy. The era of funding simply rolling-over from one year to the next is coming to an end.
Let’s not forget too that the newcomers to the market through RoATP have still got to prove themselves. They still have a lot to do for employers to choose their offer. No one has been awarded any apprenticeship starts yet, and the SFA should keep a watchful eye on those new businesses that are starting out to ensure that they deliver a high quality, high performing service. Just because they are new though, doesn’t mean that they will fail.
I won’t suggest that the SFA’s process has been perfect, and there are inevitably lessons to be learned. The disconnect between the SFA and Ofsted in terms of the potential upsurge in inspections which RoATP may present is case in point. That said, the spirit and ambition of RoATP is spot on. It will shake up the market, allowing the best providers to rise to the top. Those concerned about weak providers should perhaps not worry quite as much, as the system will inevitably push out the poorest quality and worst performers in the fullness of time. 
Jim Carley, Managing Director, Carley Consult Ltd

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