With allegations of shoddy practice, revelations of low pay and little training for apprentices, along with concerns about limited government cash being spent on ‘leisure’ courses, Ian Nash questions whether the FE and skills sector has moved on at all in the last 20 years.

he National Audit Office (NAO) review of the Education Funding Agency’s work in its first 18 months is unlikely to make happy reading for the government when published.

Concerns are understood to run far deeper than the alleged £20m overpaid to private training providers last year.

The issue is less about the agency’s approach than whether reforms required by ministers are fit for purpose. Indeed, sources suggest a benign view of the agency.

The question is whether this is symptomatic of a deeper malaise — are other things going wrong in FE and skills?

Without being unduly pessimistic, there is a horrible sense of déjà vu — a danger of repeating mistakes made by the Tories post-1992 Further and Higher Education Act, and Labour in its third term. And ministers need to take stock if not action to avoid this.

First, we have allegations of shoddy practice at training provider Elmfield, highlighted on BBC Newsnight.

Second, while ministers launched the Richard Review of Apprenticeships and promised immediate improvements, with only new starts counting as apprenticeships, what do we find? The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills [BIS] report Apprenticeship Pay Survey 2012: Research Findings shows 29 per cent of apprentices on less than the minimum wage.

It also shows 20 per cent receiving neither on or off-the-job training, 30 per cent having no off-the-job learning and 70 per cent having worked for their existing employer for a year before taking up the apprenticeship. The survey reports little or no improvement on the past.

Third, there is a rerun of the row over distinctions between funding recreational and work-skills training emerging.

Beyond what is defined as ‘skills’ or ‘leisure’ what happens when the money runs out and we still lack essential skills?”

An FE Week report suggested 24+ advanced learning loans were being taken out for courses outside limits of skills training envisaged by ministers.

While Bicton College insisted its horticulture course was about reskilling and was not just leisure-focused, others privately admit there are deep problems in defining courses either way.

Fourth, beyond the question of what is appropriately defined as being for ‘skills’ or ‘leisure’ what happens when the money runs out and we still lack essential skills?

Funding constraint after funding constraint (such as the demand-led element) has fallen foul here over two decades. What appears to be happening is that those least in need of loans are most likely to take them, while the least skilled remain least skilled.

Fifth, we now have much confusion over where funding is actually going and the suggestion that apprenticeship courses for 16 to 19-year-olds could carry fees while money appears to be being diverted to post-19 training.

Again, this emerged out of an FE Week webinar and story.

Last week Skills Minister Matthew Hancock said there was £20m more for traineeships and BIS confirmed, “it would not apply to 16 to 18-year-olds”. But, as FE Week editor Nick Linford, pointed out, “There is no separate pot for 19+ traineeships. So it disappears?”

Among quite a few college leaders I subsequently spoke to the confusion is leading to deep cynicism as they say ministers and the Skills Funding Agency “are taking it out with one hand and putting it back with the other” without any clear means of tracking apparent spending or being accountable for where the money does or doesn’t go.

Again, we have been here before with Tories and Labour massaging figures and double-accounting.

The alarm bells are not ringing as yet, but there is a need for a clear and measured response by ministers before they do, particularly as the deepest austerity cuts are yet to come.

Ian Nash is a partner in Nash & Jones Partnership and a member of
the Policy Consortium