Advice ‘scam’ warnings lead to firm closure

A business that tried to charge young people £25 each to register for apprenticeships has apparently closed following pressure from FE leaders who feared it was a “scam”.

Matthew Peck launched the Apprenticeships Portal website this month, emailing 200 secondary schools and asking them to forward a message to Year 11 pupils that advised them to sign up with his firm.

His website asked students to pay £25 per person to register and displayed an 0906 premium rate contact number, which costs £1.53p per minute.

It also claimed to have “thousands of posts open”, however there appeared to be no employers listed on the website.

It led to a number of worried readers contacting FE Week with concerns that the National Apprenticeship Service did the same job for free.

However, Mr Peck said he closed the business and website on Tuesday — earlier the same day he was contacted by FE Week.

He said: “This was not a scam. I shut the business because I kept getting abuse from vested interests who emailed me.

“We had to charge £25 per person to cover business costs, like paying the girl who answered the phone. If a young person walked into a hairdressers and paid for a haircut, you wouldn’t question that.

“I wasn’t really expecting the young people to pay — I thought their parents would cover the cost.”

He also claimed it was not unusual to use a premium rate phone line.

Mr Peck said: “Lots of government agencies use the same rate. The idea was to reduce call volume. “Otherwise, I would have had thousands of students calling me from all over the country, which I could not have coped with.

“Basically, I put an idea out there, but it never really took off. Nobody registered with me, or even called the number, so no-one lost any money. The only person who lost out was me, as I paid to set up the business and develop the website.”

Lindsay McCurdy, from Apprenticeships4England, warned her members about the Apprenticeships Portal before it closed.

She said: “I was worried this might be a scam and put a warning up on LinkedIn.

“It was morally wrong of them to try to charge young people for the service. If anyone should be asked to pay it should be the employers.

“I’m proud that it looks like collective pressure from the sector forced this man to close down his business. It showed how FE can work together for the good of learners.”

A Skills Funding Agency spokesperson said they were aware of the Apprenticeships Portal.

He said: “Through our business development team, we have been contacting schools and partners to advise them to avoid unwittingly using this website for apprenticeship opportunities.

“The National Apprenticeship Service is the official website, at www.apprenticeships.org.uk, which is a free site for learners, providers and employers to access apprenticeship opportunities.”

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “Colleges offer 72,000 apprenticeships for 16 to 19-year-olds per year. Young people don’t have to register and don’t have to pay to access them.

“They just have to pop down to their local college to see what’s on offer.”

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Editorial: Protecting the learners

It may not have been illegal for the Apprenticeships Portal to try to charge young people £25 to register for apprenticeships, but it certainly left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

So the FE sector can feel proud to have come together to say no to this offer – whether legitimate or not.

It is hard enough already for the sector to present itself in a positive light to pupils, and this ‘service’ could have seriously undermined efforts to not only recruit more apprentices but, more importantly, make apprenticeships appear a safe and credible career path.

This should be seen as a shot across the bows for the National Careers Service, as the whole episode would indicate there may well be a gap in the market for providing easy-to-understand information about apprenticeships.

Every effort must be made to promote how apprenticeships offer an attractive progression route from school.

Nick Linford, editor