Is the De Vere case a one-off, asks Marsden

The Skills Funding Agency and the National Apprenticeship Service have no idea how many providers are running introductory apprenticeships for groups of students who are all out of work, FE Week can reveal.

The De Vere Academy of Hospitality is the only known provider with permission to run access to apprenticeship courses in which 100 per cent of the learners are unemployed.

The permission, from the agency and the apprenticeship service, allowed the academy to bypass funding rules for 2012/13. These state: “Providers must not recruit more than 10 per cent of their apprenticeship starts on to the access to apprenticeship pathway without the prior agreement of their agency relationship manager.”

But the agency and the apprenticeship service both said they could not tell FE Week how many  other providers had been granted the same permission – or who they were.

We need clarity from BIS whether the De Vere case is a one-off or if it is occurring elsewhere”

They were also unable to list any providers allowed to run the course, billed as a pathway to full apprenticeship, with more than 10 per cent of students unemployed.

“We are currently still reviewing the emerging information and local response on what is a very new programme,” said an apprenticeship service spokesperson.

“This includes the collation and collection of central data and reporting. The data will be available after the end of November.”

The question over who — apart from De Vere — has permission for all access to apprenticeship learners to be unemployed is a key concern of  shadow FE minister Gordon Marsden.

“The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and its agencies need to be transparent over issues such as this; there is no point putting in place rules and then giving no indication whether they are being followed or not,” said the Labour MP.

“We need clarity from BIS whether the De Vere case is a one-off or if it is occurring elsewhere. If that is indeed the case, then the new FE minister needs to explain clearly why this apparent breach of agency guidance is taking place.”

A request for details on which providers run access to apprenticeships with unemployment rates of more than 10 per cent was put to the agency by FE Week under the Freedom of Information Act last month.

It said it “did searches and can advise that we do not hold the information requested”, before passing the query on to the apprenticeship service.

A spokesperson for the service said that it did not hold the information either.

“We have also confirmed that De Vere has an agreement to undertake a hospitality-based access programme which the majority of learners are expected to use as a gateway to an employed apprenticeship,” said the spokesperson.

The De Vere Academy  advertised two access to apprenticeship course on its website earlier this year. Both were to last seven weeks and included two or three “work trials”.

However, funding rules say that learners on these courses should spend most of their time “in a substantive work placement” with the same number of hours “as expected for those on a full apprenticeship”.

The De Vere Group has defended its programme saying that it had achieved “outstanding” success rates and was helping to address youth unemployment.

The SFA allocated £9,679,626 to the De Vere Group, known as the Alternative Hotel Group, for the 2011/12 academic year, according to government figures. It included more than £8 million for apprentices aged 16 to 18.