Fears over conflict of interest

The qualifications watchdog is “developing its thinking” on whether providers of apprenticeships should also be awarding bodies after a government report criticised the practice.

An Ofqual spokesperson said it was looking at “potential conflicts of interest and will be saying more about our thinking in due course”.

 “We do not believe it is desirable for training providers and awarding bodies to be owned by the same group or individuals. The government should look critically at this serious issue.

It follows an 11-month review of apprenticeships, chaired by West Bromwich West MP Adrian Bailey, that called on the government to look critically at joint ownership.

The report of the review, carried out by the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee, was released last week.

It said: “We do not believe it is desirable for training providers and awarding bodies to be owned by the same group or individuals. The government should look critically at this serious issue.

“We accept that the practice of joint ownership is not unusual, but learner experience is key and should not be put in jeopardy.

“Robust mechanisms must be put in place to prevent any conflict of interest impacting the learning experience of the workforce.”

Committee members heard evidence from Ged Syddall, the boss of Elmfield, about his company’s contract to provide apprentice training to supermarket giant Morrison. They also heard that he owned awarding body Skillsfirst Awards Limited.

“I set up Skillsfirst because I thought there was a gap in the market for a good, customer-centric, employee-focused awarding body,” Mr Syddall told the committee.

“It is now a very successful awarding body.

“It deals with 30 organisations, including us, so it is a competitive, out-in-the-market business.”

An Elmfield spokesperson said: “It is common practice for awarding organisations and training providers to be owned by the same organisation.

“The two biggest vocational awarding organisations, Pearson and City & Guilds, also receive funding for apprenticeship delivery. As far as we know, Ofqual does not consider this to be a conflict of interest.

“If it is decided that this is not acceptable, we would be happy to restructure accordingly.”

A Pearson spokesperson said: “We work with a range of training providers and awarding organisations and are confident in the high quality and integrity of teaching, learning and assessment we deliver. We welcome a dialogue to provide reassurances.”

A spokesperson for City & Guilds declined to comment.

Ofqual’s spokesperson said: “We have an interest in apprenticeships and, in particular, issues around quality, qualifications design and responsiveness, and the qualifications market.

“We are continuing to develop our thinking about market issues and potential conflicts of interest, and will be saying more about our thinking in due course.”

The qualifications watchdog is also investigating Pearson, which publishes textbooks and hands out academic qualifications as Edexcel. It said its aim was to preserve “confidence in the exam system”.

The Pearson spokesperson added: “We have robust conflict of interest processes and work with a full range of publishers, not just our own imprints.”

Ofqual’s investigation into Pearson, which includes a review of the wider qualifications market, launched around a year ago is expected to take 18 months.

See inside for more on the BIS Select Committee report.