Exclusive: SFA ‘should scrap’ funding data deadline

More than four in every five FE data staff believe the funding data return for the 2013/14 academic year due this week should be abandoned after delays hit the Skills Funding Agency funding software, an exclusive FE poll has suggested.

No fewer than 165 data staff of the 200 who answered the survey said the return (known as R03) should be scrapped, while 135 (68 per cent) feared their data would not be error-free in time for Wednesday’s 6pm deadline.

The FE Week survey was posted on the information authority Feconnect forum as well as and the CMIS-Network, a Jiscmail email discussion group, this morning and attracted 200 responses in a just a few hours.

Providers have been left with just eight working days to install and remedy any errors after delays in supplying the new funding information system (Fis) software.

Yet almost half (42 per cent) of data management staff said their organisation had so far failed to even install the Fis software, with the figure rising to 85 per cent for local authorities (29 out of 34 survey respondents).

The new internet-based Fis is part of a wider agency data collections and funding transformation programme (DCFT), which has been developed to comply with the Cabinet Office’s new digital strategy, which includes using a range of both large and small software development companies.

An agency spokesperson said: “We expect to deliver significant benefits from the delivery of the DCFT through the use of our current supply chain and small and medium sized enterprises in full alignment with the Cabinet Office guidelines.

“However, this complex programme has had some difficulties in implementation and we are sorry that this has resulted in frustration and concern for many colleges and other providers. We are committed to ensuring all providers can make accurate data returns, recognising that key funding and allocations calculations are based on them.”

But responses to the survey have suggested the installation problem relates to firewalls that providers use to protect against malicious cyber-attacks — Fis draws down information from the internet continuously, but would be blocked, and unable to function with a firewall.

As part of the DCFT, providers have also been waiting for a learning aims reference system (Lars) with qualification funding values, but the agency spokesperson said it was still “in development” and would not comment on when it would be ready.

However, she added: “All of the reference data that would have been viewed through Lars is available now in Fis and through the Fis export database.”

Meanwhile, following related letters of complaint to the agency from the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group, Junior Shadow Education Minister Rushanara Ali has now written to Skills Minister Matthew Hancock branding the software delays “excessive” and “unacceptable”.

She wrote: “While this software change has been planned for two years, the delays are excessive and the danger now is that enrolments will not be calculated properly and funding lost for FE colleges.”

She demanded Mr Hancock explained what measures he intended “to take in order to see off any resultant disruption for the FE sector and their funding streams”.

She added: “I would also ask you provide an explanation as to why this software change, now two years in the making, has produced such unacceptable delays.”

The agency has now set up a dedicated ‘payments and data’ page on its website — http://tinyurl.com/pm7z6h5 — to provide updates on the situation.

The website says the agency “recognises the technical issues related to the new data collections system mean some of you have found it difficult to calculate your current funding position,” but that “payments will continue to be made and are not affected by these technical issues”.

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Editorial : Funding system says no

Our survey, and the comments posted online, should leave the Skills Funding Agency and Skills Minister Matthew Hancock in no doubt as to the seriousness of their replacement software problem.

Colleges and other providers have been put in a position, through no fault of their own, where it seems many will fail to submit valid data for the first quarter of 2013/14.

And that could happen even if they manage to resolve firewall issues and successfully install the funding software given how little time there is before deadline to correct potentially tens of thousands of errors.

But the submission deadline, however frustrating for data staff, is a sideshow.

Fis and Lars may be new silly names, and they may have been in development for two years, but they are not new tools.

The real scandal is that providers have not been able to revert back to the 2012/13 version of the funding software (Lis), which ironically included 2013/14 ‘shadow funding’ reports.

And while the agency is no longer willing to say when Lars for 2013/14 will be available, its predecessor for 2012/13 (Lara) remains languishing online and unloved.

Surely the agency knew of the complexity associated with implementing the Cabinet Office digital strategy requirements at the same time as new funding systems for both young people and adults?

Nick Linford, editor