Software problems ‘distorting’ key FE and skills statistics

Key information designed to “hold the government to account over delivery of policy” has been corrupted by ongoing problems with new funding software.

The latest Statistical First Release (SFR), out on Thursday, January 30, included a host of important information based on providers’ data.

However, they’ve struggled to submit learner numbers, course details and other key information because of ongoing troubles with new Skills Funding Agency (SFA) software.

And now the problems are affecting the SFR, which acknowledged issues with a note: “There is evidence of increased data lag for the first three months of 2013/14 compared to the same period of the previous year.”

Among the statistics most affected by the software problem appears to have been provisional data on the number of apprenticeship starts for the first quarter (August to October) of the current academic year.

They showed an unexpected 19 per cent drop for intermediate level apprenticeships (which are not subject to FE loans). There were 90,800 starts during the first quarter of 2012/13 (according to provisional figures published in January last year), compared to just 73,500 during the same period in 2013/14.

Stephen Hewitt, Morley College’s strategic funding, enrolments and examinations manager, said: “The problems with the new funding software are clearly starting to distort the FE figures, as shown in the SFR.

“Providers will obviously do our best to get the figures right for the next round of figures, but this is likely to continue for the next few months.”

Lindsay McCurdy, from Apprenticeships4England, said: “The software is not fit for purpose at the present time and is obviously contorting the figures, which you can clearly see with intermediate level apprenticeship starts. Urgent action is need to rectify these problems.”

A spokesperson for the SFA and BIS admitted there had been “data collection issues” affecting the “validity” of the SFR. However, he declined to comment further on the cause of the SFR problem. Nor did he comment on what actions BIS or the SFA was taking to rectify the software situation.

A statement explaining the importance of the SFR on the Data Service website states: “Its aim is to present the performance of the FE system, and to hold the government to account over delivery of policy.”

Shadow skills minister Liam Byrne said: “The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills [BIS] is bringing the same shambolic approach we saw in student finance to collecting figures for apprentices — this can’t go on.

“Ministers must come clean and tell us the full extent of these ‘data collection issues’, what they estimate the genuine figures are and what they’re doing to ensure this never happens again.”

The SFA and Data Service’s new Funding Information System (Fis) software is behind providers’ data submission headache.

It should have been available in August last year, but was not released until November — and providers say it is still giving unreliable funding data reports.

The government’s Learning Aim Reference System (Lars) online search engine should also have been available by last August.

It is supposed to help providers’ management information system (MIS) officers check whether qualifications are eligible for funding, and how much per learner providers should receive.

However, it is still not available and providers are having to use Lars Lite instead — a temporary downloadable database from the SFA that providers claim is also producing unreliable data.

The Association of Colleges and 157 Group declined to comment.