Just 6,375 out of 13,420 adult retail apprentices succeeded

England’s biggest apprenticeship provider has come under fire from the chair of a government watchdog after “appalling” figures revealed less than half of its retail and wholesale leavers qualified last year.

Just 47.5 per cent of Elmfield Training’s 13,420 leavers in the sector aged 25 or more walked away with an apprenticeship certificate in 2011/12.

The official minimum level of performance (MLP) is 53 per cent and Elmfield was the only provider in this bracket (25 and over in the retail and wholesale learners, and with at least 100 leavers) to miss the quality threshold, according to National Success Rate Tables published by the Data Service.

A spokesperson for Elmfield, which delivered the majority of its apprenticeships for supermarket giant Morrisons, said that “tough trading conditions” in the retail sector made it difficult to access and support learners last year.

However, Adrian Bailey, chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee, who has previously questioned Elmfield’s profit levels, called for official action on the firm’s performance.

“Elmfield is a major training provider in receipt of substantial funds from government,” he said.

“With such a low level of success it seems that a large amount of public money was wasted.

“In light of the BIS Select Committee criticism of this company and its profits, demands were made upon the government to be more rigorous in its monitoring of Elmfield and value for money.

“These figures are appalling and I will be putting it to the committee that we write to the government pointing this out, and demanding action from both Ofsted and the Skills Funding Agency.”

Elmfield, whose agency contract last academic year was £37,906,346 and currently stands at £27,649,434, was last inspected by Ofsted in July 2011 and got a satisfactory — grade three — rating. The education watchdog is due to visit again by September next year.

A spokesperson for the agency said it took “robust and proportionate action” where providers failed to reach performance targets.

“We are unable to provide specific details until we have discussed next steps with individual providers,” she said.

Elmfield had 22,290 apprenticeship leavers across all ages and sectors, including business administration, last year and achieved an overall success rate of 58.5 per cent. The next biggest, with 13,830 leavers, was Babcock, which achieved 71.4 per cent.

The Elmfield spokesperson said it was moving away from retail.

She said: “Fewer than 40 per cent of new learners joining our programmes are in retail this year and the proportion will continue to fall, partly as a result of Elmfield’s decision not to tender for a new contract with Morrisons.”

She added: “Further analysis of 2011/12 shows that, without retail 25+ learners, the success rate would be over 75 per cent.

“In retail, success rates for 16 to 18-year-olds was 79.4 per cent, comparing favourably to a sector national average of 75.1 per cent.

“For learners aged 19 to 24, the success rate was 75.1 per cent against the sector national average of 75.2 per cent. Of those learners who left without completing the framework the great majority (84 per cent) passed both the Qualifications and Credit Framework and technical certificates.

“For MLP purposes our performance against the new retail framework in 2011/12 was 67.9 per cent for all ages, and the 25+ success rate was 63 per cent.

“The strain put on our retail partners by the economic conditions in 2011/12 had a significant but shortlived effect on our performance.

“In previous years, Elmfield’s performance has been significantly above the national average.

“We have now turned the corner and are pleased to see our success rate back where it belongs.”


Editorial: Rewarding failure

It has been 21 months since the first Elmfield adult retail apprentice leaver in the 2011/12 academic year, and we now know less than half achieved their framework.

Let’s look at the scale of this failure for all its apprentices.

In total, Elmfield had 22,290 leavers with an average success rate of 58.5 per cent, representing six percent of the England’s total 360,930 leavers (who had an average rate of 73.8 per cent).

Statistically, this means Elmfield alone dragged England’s overall apprenticeship national success rate down by a full percentage point.

For a provider which has said it receives all of its money from the government, you would think failure on this scale would not be rewarded.

But in the 2010/11 financial year the directors of Elmfield drew pre-tax dividends of £6.5m on a £34m turnover, and Ged Syddall, chief executive and majority shareholder, saw his salary more than quadruple to £408,000 for 2011/12.

Unsurprisingly, Adrian Bailey MP, like the rest of us, would like to know how the Skills Funding Agency and Ofsted allowed this to happen — and what they intend to do about it.

It’s time for the agency to get tough and limit the public money it allows provider shareholders to receive.

Nick Linford, editor of FE Week