The strange case of Learndirect’s long-awaited ‘inadequate’ grade shows that providers in this country are not created equal, argues former Ofsted HMI Phillip Hatton

The history of Learndirect is interesting when you consider what it is today. Almost 20 years ago, I was sent to a launch event with Dr Anne Wright, the first chief executive of the University for Industry (UfI) and what became Learndirect, to see what we might one day be inspecting.

It was not a good start; there was no answer to the simple question “what will you be offering?” Nonetheless, it was formally launched by Tony Blair and David Blunkett as an online initiative that aimed to give adult education a 21st century internet boost.

It was offered through several hundred centres that initially struggled to attract learners, until the brand became better known via expensive sponsorship of the TV programme Who wants to be a millionaire?

The SFA continued to hand thousands of contracts to this very large provider rather than share funding more equitably

UfI Ltd was later included on a list compiled by the new coalition government of quangos it sought to abolish. The company and the brand were soon bought by LDC, part of Lloyds Banking Group, on 4 October 2011, with Learndirect becoming an independent training provider competing in the open market and UfI morphing into a charitable trust.

They quickly became very good at obtaining government contracts and had even achieved an ‘outstanding’ grade from Ofsted for their leadership and management sometime before this latest ‘inadequate’ inspection.

What was worrying from the perspective that government money for delivering apprenticeships should be spent mainly on apprentices, was the way profits were used to service debts, pay dividends and even sponsor the Marussia F1 racing team.

The SFA continued to hand thousands of contracts to this very large provider rather than share funding more equitably among the best providers. Was I surprised to hear that the normally mandatory three-month termination notice was not going to be applied? No. This has always been a special case to civil servants in a government where the rest of the sector struggles with ever-tightening purse strings.

Should the sector be angry? Yes. August has traditionally been the time to bury bad news. This week we watched Norfolk Training Services go into administration, and there are others who might follow due to the ESFA’s one-size-fits-all contract withdrawal policy.

Years ago the Learning and Skills Council got the Adult Learning Inspectorate to set up the Provider Development Unit, in which expert inspectors swiftly supported ‘inadequate’ providers. The vast majority rapidly improved and training was not disrupted. If only the ESFA had the expertise to make a similar judgement about the impact of its own termination policy. Some ‘inadequate’ providers would be able to quickly improve with a decent guiding hand.

And what about inspection quality? As one who reads every report as it is published, I have seen a visible deterioration over the last year in the quality of reports. The repeated use of stock phrases that show little understanding of work-based learning and NVQs is a particular worry. When I see that a large specialist single area provider has no inspectors allocated with a background in that area, and only one inspector whose background gives them any right to make judgements that can close a company, I despair.

August has traditionally been the time to bury bad news

We were promised ‘current practitioners’ by the last chief inspector but that seems to have been forgotten.  

Of increasing concern to me at the moment are the variability of judgments around outcomes and the lack of quality assurance to ensure some level of consistency. In the last week, where a report on a provider said it had lost the majority of its apprentices in the last year, it was rated ‘requires improvement’ – the same grade given to a provider performing above the national average.

Because Ofsted is the statutory regulator, it is almost untouchable both on its decisions and on its inspection techniques, and appeals are judged by other inspectors rather than independent experts without a vested interest.

Independent providers are still treated differently to colleges and have little financial assurance over their long-term futures. The ESFA clearly needs to judge on a case-by-case basis when terminating contracts, and Ofsted needs to allocate inspectors with real expertise in the areas they are inspecting.

Phil Hatton is a former Ofsted HMI and lead consultant at the Learning Improvement Service