Colleges asked to step in after private firm reveals plans to walk away from £17m contract

The Skills Funding Agency (SFA) is looking for a general FE college to step in after a major private provider pulled out early from London’s £17m prison education contract, FE Week can reveal.

In the latest example of a college taking on provision where the private sector has waked away from a multimillion pound Skills Funding Agency contract, welfare-to-work provider A4e has given notice it was terminating its Offender Learning and Skills Service (Olass) contract for a dozen London prisons — although it would continue providing the service until an alternative provider was found.

It had won London’s Olass4 contract in August 2012 and had been expected to deliver the training until July 2016. It had won the work with Kensington and Chelsea College having delivered all three of London’s previous prison education contracts since the Olass system was first rolled out across the country in 2006.

An A4e spokesperson said: “Over the last two years, delivering the service in London has become extremely challenging due to a number of constraints beyond our control and which could not have been anticipated when the contract was let. These have had a heavy impact on learner attendance, completion and achievements.

“We have concluded, in order not to continue to deliver the contract at a loss, to give notice to terminate our provision of Olass 4 in London.”

It comes just over a year after Newcastle College Group’s Intraining division took on the apprenticeship contract for supermarket giant Morrison from Elmfield, which later went into administration, and nearly two years after West Nottinghamshire College saved more than 100 jobs when it took on apprenticeship providers Pearson in Practice. And Newcastle College struck a similar deal in March 2008 when it acquired Carter and Carter.

An SFA spokesperson told FE Week that it was looking to return London’s prison education to a general FE college provider. She said that the three other providers to have won Olass4 — the Manchester College, Milton Keynes College and Weston College — had been invited to “express an interest” in taking on the A4E work.

She said: “We have invited providers who were awarded contracts through the original Olass4 open and competitive tendering process to express an interest in delivering the service in London.

“Following this stage we carried out an assessment of the capability and capacity of those organisations to take-up this contract and discussions are now under way to secure ongoing provision.

“We expect to announce which successor organisation will be awarded the London Olass contract in good time for handover of responsibility by December.”

She added no other providers would be invited to submit bids.

And it looks like Manchester College could be getting the contract with Weston and Milton Keynes appearing to have distanced themselves from the opportunity.

Dr Paul Phillips, principal at Weston College which provides prison education in the South West England, indicated to FE Week that he would not be pursuing the contract.

He said: “It would be our intention to expand our offender learning portfolio in the future rather than now.”

A spokesperson for Milton Keynes College, which holds the South Central and East Midlands Olass4 contracts, said it would “not be pursuing the contract at this time”.

The Manchester College, which holds the North East, North West, Kent and Sussex, and Yorkshire and Humberside Olass4 contracts, declined to comment.

The A4E spokesperson said that transfer of undertakings protection of employment (TUPE) rules were expected to apply to its 400 teaching and support staff in London, adding that the company would continue to run its Olass4 contract for 14 prisons in the East of England.

Rod Clark, Prisoners’ Education Trust chief executive, said: “The delivery of education for prisoners across the country is being seriously affected by overcrowding and staff shortages which are leaving people locked-up for longer, so they can’t get to class and providers struggle to meet their [payment] targets. It may be that this latest decision by A4e to stop working in London’s prisons is a result of these problems.”