Learndirect and DfE scandal referred to NAO by Public Accounts Committee chair

Learndirect and DfE scandal referred to NAO by Public Accounts Committee chair

The Learndirect scandal is expected to face a National Audit Office investigation following a request from the Public Accounts Committee, FE Week can reveal.

In a series of events that will be familiar to FE Week readers, the largest training provider in the UK has been afforded special treatment by the DfE and retains all contracts, despite being awarded an Ofsted grade four last month following a failed Judicial Review.

In an interview with FE Week, the chair of the committee, Meg Hillier, today said: “We had hoped to have a hearing today with the DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater and we were going to put some of the key questions about how Learndirect can be too big to fail, why it is still getting money and no contract terminations, questions like that.

“We [the Public Accounts Committee] have also been in touch with the National Audit Office, which is considering doing an investigation.”

Speaking to the BBC’s education editor, Branwen Jeffreys, apprenticeships minister Anne Milton said that the government “would claw back from Learndirect any part of their contract that they’ve failed to fulfill.”

This latest twist in the tale comes following an FE Week interview broadcast this evening (see videos below), in partnership with the BBC News, in which the Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said the most shocking finding was that apprentices “were getting no training at all.”

Amanda Spielman HMCI, Ofsted, interviewed by Branwen Jeffreys, education editor, BBC News

During the Judicial Review, which was attended by FE Week, Ofsted outlined how Learndirect admitted during the inspection in March that 8,211 apprentices out of 19,940 (41%), were not receiving their training entitlement.

And the court heard that in a random sample of five apprentices there was no evidence of learning plans or any progress monitoring. When audio files were presented that proved not to contain promised evidence the inspector questioned in his notes whether Learndirect were “gaming evidence”.

“These are young people often in their first job who most need training and their interests looking after. They weren’t getting trained,” said Ms Spielman.

Learndirect receive around £40m per year for apprenticeship training, and when pressed on the risk to the public purse, Ms Speilman said: “We are the inspector not the regulator here. We do not have enforcement responsibility, just to be clear … the ESFA has the main responsibility for the financial side.”

Amanda Spielman HMCI, Ofsted, interviewed by Nick Linford, FE Week editor

Ofsted shared their concerns with the ESFA on the 27 March, and it is understood the Secretary of State Justine Greening received a briefing about the inspection findings and consequences from the ESFA chief executive Peter Lauener soon after.

Learndirect told the judge during the Judicial Review that the ESFA had informed them they would receive an early termination notice once the grade four report was published, but it seems the ESFA were overruled.

In a statement Ofsted said: “We usually share provisional grades and main findings with the funding agency and the provider at the final feedback meeting – the agency therefore know what the provider’s strengths and weaknesses are as soon as the inspection concludes.

“In the case of Learndirect, at the request of the provider, the final feedback meeting did not take place, so the provisional grades and main findings were emailed to the agency on the Monday following the inspection. This meant that the agency were aware of the weaknesses with Learndirect’s provision within three days of the inspection.”

The DfE has so far not answered the question as to whether any audit or investigative action has taken place, and insists: “It is normal procedure for the department to wait until an inspection report is finalised and published by Ofsted before taking any formal action.”

Ms Hillier concluded the interview by saying: “If the NAO do an investigation, which I hope they will, then we would expect that we would have all the data and information about what money has gone in, what’s been spent.

“If the NAO go in they have all the access to all the contracts and information at the DfE and I would hope that if Learndirect’s got any conscience, given that it’s now got this publicity anyway, it ought to be as willing as it can be to open itself up to the auditors because there is now, I hope, nowhere for them to run and hide.

“There is no real prospect, it seems to me, of Learndirect surviving this scandal.”

Learndirect declined to comment. FE Week will continue our investigations and press for answers.

See edition 217 of FE Week, published on Friday 15 September for the latest developments on the Learndirect and DfE scandal.