Don’t let the training providers steal your lunch” said Nick Boles in 2015. In delivering the bulk of apprenticeships in the UK, training providers have done exactly that – they have eaten the whole college canteen!

There is a huge hole in the service provided by colleges that has enabled private business owners and entrepreneurs to step in and build successful businesses delivering training to employers and individuals.

When I worked for a Finance Company we used to say that if the banks got their act together there would be no need for finance companies. Similarly, in FE, if colleges got their act together there should be no need for private training providers.

Many people in the sector look down on private providers as though they are not worthy of being part of the education sector and often there is little recognition in what they have had to do to get where they are.

Those business owners (people who have set up a private training provider) have done so with a massive effort, long hours, high risk, investment of own money and often at significant sacrifice to their family.

The majority do so because they are passionate about what they do, the value they add to people in society and the way they can enhance other people’s lives. Yes, they need to earn a living too but who doesn’t?

Those who are in training just for the money are very few and far between and don’t survive long in the sector nowadays - there are more barriers to entry than back in the real “wild west” of the Train to Gain days.

When you see some of the comments made about private training providers and their supposed ‘misuse of public money’ – sponsoring a sports club for example – this misses the point about the value added by not only training providers but a whole supply chain that sits around it – not a ‘misuse of public funds’ but of great value to employers, learners and society.

Take the constant argument about “brokers” – described by some as though they are almost criminal – all the money they take away from the learner!

This is wrong – I met a “broker” this week – someone who has been through all the above hard work, setting up a business and all that entails – he spends his week visiting employers, conducting TNA’s and recommending solutions.

He then introduces a college or training provider to deliver the training. He earns 5% of the funds for his service. Funds that might not have been used had the college not had the foresight to engage this terrible person to go out and deliver results for others.

How is that different from a college paying a Business Development Manager £45k per annum to do the same thing?

Apart from less risk to the college and more risk to this individual – very little – why therefore such a differentiation in attitudes? The same type of nonsense is spouted about bid-writers. People who have a skill in writing tenders (how on earth someone can do that - sitting in a dark room for days on end would drive me mad but good luck to them!).

How is it a ‘Misuse of public funds’ engaging a self-employed bid writer and paying them £2,000 to write a bid. Money that could go to the learner they say! How is that different from an employee of a college writing a tender whilst being on a salary?

In fact, rather than pointing the finger at these SME businesses (99% of UK businesses were SME’s in 2017) for some sort of wrongdoing and instead if we were to see them as part of a successful supply chain that makes for a better industry, utilising people’s specialist skills and allowing us all to do what we do best – surely that is more accurate?

Is paying your accountant (or lawyer) a ‘misuse of public funds’ if the training provider does not have the skills inside her business to handle those functions? Of course, not – which shows how flawed the whole argument over third party support is.

Is taking subscription fees for selling your newspaper, receiving fees for advertising jobs and running seminars to ‘educate’ people in the sector any different from a consultant, a recruitment agent, a bid writer or a broker? No of course not.

Is being paid £150k per annum to run a college and not using the contracts you have been given (£1bn underspend of Advanced Learning Loans reported in 2017!) and then making a deficit – or LOSS – is that a ‘misuse of public money’?

When you add the millions of pounds of government bailout money to the same college because they have not controlled their budgets – then that is a real waste of tax-payers money.

I fully agree that where someone uses public funds for inappropriate purposes and/or does not follow the rules and guidelines which are clearly written down then there should be serious consequences.

There should be checks and balances to monitor and ensure that the rules are adhered to - how did the government agencies allow 3aaa to build so big so quickly and not have intense scrutiny over what was happening?

Surely that lack of oversight comes close to a ‘misuse of public money’?

The holier than thou industry experts are too busy swatting flies instead of spotting elephants.

Respect everyone who is part of this great supply chain rather than pillorying the little guy – whether that be a training provider or any other business performing a very worthwhile function within the whole FE supply chain.

 

David Kitchen is Managing Director of The Leadership Team, a specialist growth consultancy for the FE sector.

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