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ESFA Contract Management

A flurry of articles over recent weeks on contract management, almost certainly anticipating the forthcoming Dame Mary Ney’s report are all interesting and make valid observations and suggestions. These points have been raised many times before, they are not new, but the recipient was not and still is not listening.

There is no doubt that the mechanisms used by the ESFA for contract management are not fit for purpose, indeed they never have been for the majority of providers in the sector, even in the days of the FEFC and beyond, spanning some nearly 30 years now. The exceptions to this were the College sector and those 200 or so organisations that fell within the confines of the National Contract Unit (NCS) or equivalent as time passed.

But the consequences of poor oversight has got progressively worse over the past 5 years or so, too many surprises and casualties and one common feature – the ESFA.

I have been fortunate enough to also work as a Chair in the MAT sector and believe me the contract management is no better, indeed the risks are higher and the oversight simply dreadful. 

So is it not surprising we have the expanded FE Commissioner who really does ride into town after the horse has truly bolted from the stable door and at what significant cost to the tax payer and ultimately the learners because that money could go into supporting our learners.

Contract management is not a ‘fireside chat’, it is part of the overall Governance framework of an organisation. Supportive Challenge is the key to this but a starting point is it MUST happen. 

As a group of practitioners, we all have good and bad experiences of contract management so we are going to start a debate to influence change. Contract management must start with RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT – a named person who understands your industry and gets to know your business – you would not have an EPA assessor who was not industry qualified would you!

Contract management must also be in real time, looking at issues, as they happen now – not 18 months in the past. A review of annual accounts from a desk in Coventry, 12 months or more after the year end tells you absolutely nothing, but we rely on our ‘300 score’ to assess the health of each and every provider. The same applies to achievement rates – I will be looking with interest what they will be shortly for the expansion of L&M programmes after the levy was introduced !

I was subject to contract management as a provider for over 20 years, excellent when the NCS and Large Providers Unit was in operation but dreadful after that. The only minutes kept were the ones we maintained (which will come in particularly useful in the next 12 months !), the actions for the ESFA were never taken forward and frankly the meetings descended into a farce with little talk about business – in the end, I stopped going !

The situation was no better at the MAT, the ESFA never asked to see me as Chair – it was a £100m business we were in control off (not the CEO) and the only correspondence I ever got was the annual letter from the CEO of the ESFA telling me I may be paying the CEO more than the Prime Minister (we weren’t by the way). They did not even send me correspondence directly so was reliant on the MAT to forward the information to me – great that!

Therefore, let us start a debate and formulate our own model for contract management with our regulators. They can choose to ignore the results of it but it does not stop us applying the principles ourselves, starting with taking minutes and actions with every interaction with them – you never know when you might need them in the future.

Sarah Marples, MD of 

To join the debate in the forum click here

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