Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd

Sub-contracting is an issue which raises strong emotions in the sector and has been the subject of passionate debate both in FE News and elsewhere.  Supporters claim passionately that sub-contracting has been a valuable process which has enabled small providers to gain access to funding without being weighed down by an administrative burden.

Detractors like myself argue that sub-contracting has far too often been used by greedy primes as a license to print money, with extortionate charges being levied in return for very little worthwhile support. Moreover, rather than empowering small providers, it has in fact restricted their development and prevented them from competing on a level playing field with the favoured few SFA contract holders.

Employer Ownership Will End Sub-Contracting

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the system, it now seems almost certain that sub-contracting will soon become a thing of the past, not least because there will no longer be any funds to sub-contract. With employers, rather than the SFA, holding the purse strings and with the likelihood of a much expanded Register of Approved Apprenticeship Providers, even the smallest providers will be able to negotiate and contract directly with an employer.

A Chance To Build New Relationships

So will the demise of sub-contracting, mark an end to relationships between providers? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe we now have an opportunity to build much more solid and healthy relationships based on mutual needs and skills. Apparently, all the talk at DfE is about “partnerships” and “consultancies” and providers now have the opportunity to collaborate and turn these words into meaningful business propositions. The term “Co-opetition” has been coined to describe collaboration between potential competitors and I believe it could be the basis for strong future working relationships in the sector.

An obvious example is in our own area of Functional Skills delivery. Many Apprenticeship providers have struggled to deliver Functional Skills and that is hardly surprising since the skill set required to teach a learner maths and English is very different from that required to assess their job skills in the workplace. Would it therefore not make sense for a Functional Skills provider and an Apprenticeship provider to make a joint pitch to a prospective client, emphasizing the fact that the client gets the best of both worlds. This in fact is exactly the sort of relationship we have with employer providers such as Whitbread and it works incredibly well and adds real value to the learner. I am sure many other examples will arise as the Reform programme starts to gather pace.

Let’s be clear -  this sort of relationship is a world away from sub-contracting. It’s about 2 companies working together on an equal basis to deliver a product which adds value to both their businesses, to their clients and most importantly, to learners.

Of course, collaboration is not an easy journey to undertake especially for companies who in the past have jealously guarded their independence. I have written previously about the skills and processes required to make it a success and these include strong leadership from both partners, ownership throughout the organizations and a common culture and set of values. None of that happens overnight and it requires goodwill, trust and a long-term commitment from both parties. However, I believe this is a journey well worth taking and one which could be of critical importance in the brave new world into which we are all entering.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a specialist vocational training company focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills.

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