The Education and Skills Funding Agency was accused of plunging the relaunched non-levy apprenticeship funding tender process into chaos last night, as new “clarifications” and document updates were sent out. David Hughes reflects on college concerns below.

Colleges are very frustrated and deeply concerned about the timing and the details of this procurement.

Concerned because their relationships with thousands of employers and students are at risk if they are not successful in bidding for the business they have been successfully carrying out for many years.

Frustrated because the complexity of the process has required detailed clarifications, some of which have come very late in the process and which have led, for instance, to extensive spreadsheets having to be completely re-worked.

That said, it is a relief that the deadline has been extended in recognition of the importance of the clarification issues.

Of course, that then reduces the time that officials have to consider the bids, on what was already a very tight timetable.

There are a number of wider issues here which are important to remember.

This a high risk process for everyone

Firstly, this a high risk process for everyone – the whole apprenticeship programme requires strong engagement with small and medium-sized enterprises and with potential apprentices.

Both will only be secured if the majority of existing college and independent providers are successful in the procurement.

New entrants will not be able to deliver the scale and quality required in short time.

Second, the procurement timetable is rushed, because the procurement laws are inflexible, because there’s a fear of legal challenge from disgruntled would-be new entrants and because the election delayed matters.

The legal challenge risk partly exists because companies have responded to repeated talk over the years from ministers and officials about bringing in new entrants, rather than improving quality and contestability of existing entrants.

Third, we are still concerned that there is simply insufficient money for SME apprenticeships, and that even if the procurement goes smoothly, we will have a very difficult 18 month period of uncertainty, with colleges unsure if they will get growth funding to meet demand.

The uncertainty is compounded by the complex interplay between multiple carry-in calculations and new starts, which the procurement has created at the same time as the levy is still making an impact.

It is sad that the biggest losers in all of this could be young people

Fourth, the rushed timetable means that ESFA has had to repeat a large single national procurement in one go rather than, say, dividing the market up by regions to create more manageable chunks.

That job is harder because ESFA staffing levels have been halved in the years since the financial crash and those working on this are managing a new set of policies and rules with very tight timescales.

Fifthly, we have repeatedly asked for DfE and ESFA to give more time and attention to developing the market over the long-run for apprenticeship provision.

We need to have an approach which ensures there’s a strong and sustainable training supply side able to meet employer and apprentice demand.

That requires long-term clarity for all current and potential new providers, to allow for proper investment in staffing, facilities, relationships and progression pathways for students.

The procurement approach needed to support this will probably be very different to the current approach.

It is sad that the biggest losers in all of this could be young people and adults missing out on good apprenticeship opportunities.

But, the most important issue for today, with the procurement deadline so close, is for ESFA to get correct and unambiguous information out now to assist bidders.

AoC members are battling to get this right at the busiest time of the year, as they register and induct hundreds of thousands of new students.