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Exclusive with the ALPs Paul Warner

Paul Warner, Operations Manager with the Association of Learning Providers (ALP), responds to the education select committee’s call for an expansion in providers in FE.

It is really encouraging that a Commons all-party committee is backing moves towards a more open market in LSC-funded provision. Over six years have passed since a government white paper recommended a more simplified funding system for FE and yet the bulk of LSC funding has remained ring-fenced for allocation to colleges only.

The MPs refer to this as “protectionism” and who am I to disagree? The FE white paper at last heralded action to tackle the issue seriously, even though the prescribed timetable seemed, in ALP’s view, unnecessarily slow. With Lord Leitch expected to say something about the timetable in his autumn report on skills and the select committee’s recommendations now public, ministers should feel less restrained about accelerating progress in the interests of the employer and the learner.

The select committee says that it would welcome public funding made more accessible to quality, established independent providers. ALP welcomes in turn the focus on quality being the key for gaining more and larger LSC contracts and points to the comments of the Chief Inspector for Adult Learning who says that the performance of the work based learning provider sector has been transformed over the past four years.

The select committee’s recommendation for more direct contracting between the LSC and independent providers could not be more timely. About eighteen months ago, ALP made representations to ministers and officials that a substantial proportion of the so-called “franchising arrangements” was a poor use of taxpayers” money. Franchising involves a college sub-contracting out some of its LSC-contracted delivery to an independent provider, but keeping a “management fee” to itself in the process.

Ministers listened and action started to be taken. But we are now hearing from our members that the practice is coming back under the LSC’s new Train to Gain programme for employers. Colleges have been awarded Train to Gain contracts which they can”t deliver on their own. There are also meant to be LSC guidelines limiting the fees that lead contractors can accrue by sub-contracting, but we are starting to gather evidence from our members which may raise serious concerns on how the programme’s roll-out is progressing. The MPs say that sub-contracting is not always in the best interests of learners or employers and that there is no case for not allowing direct contracting with quality independent providers.

Let’s be clear. ALP recognises that genuinely voluntary partnerships between colleges and work based learning providers can be a good form of public service delivery, especially when each partner is delivering on its strengths. However, we don”t want to see Train to Gain being used as another form of protectionism and public money being wasted on fees, when the Government has some tough calls to make in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.

When the white paper’s proposals for the re-introduction of learner accounts for adults were published, ALP expressed strong support, saying that the Government was brave to bring them back after the problems with the Individual Learning Accounts to which the select committee refers in its report. The committee is right to say that ILAs had much to commend them, particularly in terms of the role they could play in bringing about a more demand-led system. This is why ALP is backing their return.

ALP is pleased that the select committee agrees with the Government that a more demand-led approach is a priority for further education. It is interesting to see, however, that the MPs want ministers to take a step back to check on any tensions which may develop in the system between those with different needs. We acknowledge that this is not an easy nut to crack and therefore we have asked Lord Leitch to offer his views on the issue when he publishes his report. Careful consideration of some complex issues does not though provide an excuse for sticking with the timetable proposed in the white paper. Employers and individual learners should be able to exercise a genuine choice over the type of learning and provider they want if we wish to meet the challenges already identified in Lord Leitch’s interim report.

Paul Warner, Operations Manager, Association of Learning Providers.

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