Training providers feel vulnerable, unrepresented, unsupported, unprotected, exploited and undervalued. That is the inevitable conclusion from the conversations I have had over the last few weeks with a range of providers across the country, says Peter Cobrin, who runs the Apprenticeships England Community Interest Company

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over the past year companies have folded, others have got close. The media, ranging from Panorama and  the Daily Telegraph through to FE Week have tried to lift the lid on practices ranging from the possibly illegal through to the ethically questionable.  What concerned me was the apparent absence of a coherent analysis, and clearly Government agrees with me, hence the various reviews and investigations.  The problem is, to adapt the joke about economists, if you laid all the conclusions of these reviews end to end, you still wouldn’t reach a conclusion!

Part of the problem is that these reviews – Holt, the BIS Select Committee and I’ll wager Richards as well – start from a flawed position. This is known as the “something must be done” syndrome.  This is compounded by the confusing and conflicting agendas of the Departments of State covering this sector.  Clearly DfE and DBIS are at odds over key areas that impact on apprenticeships — the information advice and guidance (IAG) services offered to young people, the role and value of vocational learning, embedding employability skills within the curriculum are three examples.  Holt got short shrift for his well-made comments on the crisis in IAG and was understandably angry at this.

Meanwhile, back in the world of front-line apprenticeship training, what words am I hearing? Try vulnerable, unrepresented, unsupported, unprotected, exploited and undervalued.

What words am I hearing? Try vulnerable, unrepresented, unsupported, unprotected, exploited and undervalued.”

Let’s look at each one of these:

Vulnerable: training providers sit at the end of a complex chain of legislation, government agencies and prime contractors — an environment where any change impacts directly, and immediately on its day to day activities and its very survival. Contracts for training delivery are, quoting one provider, “totally one-sided and one would have to be mad to sign one”.  Yet they are regularly and uncomplainingly signed. This was an issue raised by a very surprising source, Elmfield Training’s CEO, Ged Syddall at the Apprenticeships England Conference in Leeds.  He was very critical of the lack of transparency and one-sidedness in the contractual relationship between prime and sub-contractor.

Unrepresented:  repeatedly I was told that training providers lack a voice.  This came as a surprise to me given the role of the AELP and the existence local training provider networks.  The former was regarded, again quoting one provider, a “big boys club” and therefore unwilling or unable to intervene when problems arise, the latter purely a conduit for information “from above”.

Unsupported and unprotected: given the lack of a voice, it is hardly surprising that when things go wrong, there is no “emergency support” for a training provider?  Where is the “999” number that provides 24/7 help?  Every provider I met said that this is clearly a major issue that NAS and the SFA must address.  I had hoped that after a conversation with the SFA’s Geoff Russell at the DBIS Select Committee in May, that this issue was resolved.  I was told that he would ensure that contractual disputes were resolved at local SFA level.  However, one training provider I met with was told by the SFA that “we don’t get involved in domestic disputes” when confronted with non-payment of £300,000 from his prime.  There is clearly is a need for a mechanism for identifying and resolving such a dispute and blaming cutbacks at the SFA is of no use at all  — nor is relying on the informal good offices of, for example, Apprenticeships England, or FE Week’s investigative prowess.

More next week when I look at issues of exploitation and the undervaluing of training providers and make some recommendations.