The troubled second attempt at an ESFA non-levy apprenticeship funding tender descended into chaos last night as a series of  new “clarifications” and document updates were sent out.

With little over a week until the submission deadline, bidders were informed that the tender cap calculation for existing apprenticeship providers should be based on a proxy percentage for non-levy funding in 2015/16.

But that’s only for new starts, not all delivery which would include the funding for apprentices that started before August 2015.

By only including funding for starts, this will in many cases more than halve the tender cap funding value that providers have been working to.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers reacted angrily, describing the situation now as “totally unacceptable and makes a mockery of the process”. 

He went on to say: “Changing documentation and requirements in a procurement process at this late stage is unacceptable.  

“The whole process is in danger of descending into a farce.  To introduce a new criteria, starts, leading to a wholesale reduction in the maximum bid amount at this late stage, when many have completed their documentation, will lead to total confusion and chaos.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) this morning told FE Week (click here for full expert piece): “Colleges are very frustrated and deeply concerned about the timing and the details of this procurement.

“Concerned because their relationships with thousands of employers and students are at risk if they are not successful in bidding for the business, they have been successfully carrying out for many years.

“Frustrated because the complexity of the process has required detailed clarifications, some of which have come very late in the process and which have led, for instance, to extensive spreadsheets having to be completely re-worked.”

One college vice principal tweeted: “It really has descended into farce!” and a sector consultant asked: “Is this how to ruin apprenticeship providers course 101?”

The latest round of clarifications come after the ESFA scrapped the first attempt at the tender, and then extended the application deadline for this second attempt by three and a half days, to midday on September 8.

Mr Hughes added: “It is a relief that the deadline has been extended in recognition of the importance of the clarification issues. Of course, that then reduces the time that officials have to consider the bids, on what was already a very tight timetable.”

Some of the guidance and 570 answers to requests for clarifications also left many scratching their heads, as they contained different answers to the same question. One message, sent out last night, reads: “The Education and Skills Funding Agency has been clear that if you have already completed earlier versions of the documentation that is acceptable for submission.

“This remains the case for all documentation apart from Attachment 4 volumes and values sheet. Attachment 4 – Volumes and Values V1.3 This version [updated yesterday] needs to be used by all Potential Providers (including those that have already submitted their tender).”

And yet the latest clarifications document, also published yesterday, says: “All versions of Attachment 4 can be used, anyone starting completion now it is advisable to use the newest version of the attachments but it is not essential if you have already completed”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The ESFA issued a clarification to ensure that all bidders are provided with the information needed to submit high quality bids. We recognised that this may have an impact on the tender process, which is why have extended the submission deadline. This will not affect the delivery timetable.”

Read my NCFE blog about the complexity of the non-levy tender, written before this latest round of “clarifications”, here.


UPDATE from AELP: “Unfortunately this is simply yet another unnecessary attack on existing high quality providers, when the government are keen to stress the importance of stability during this transitional period.

“We have been informed by the ESFA that this is simply a clarification and that “most providers have understood this anyway”.  From the plethora of responses we have already had from members, we know this is clearly not the case and AELP is not aware of any members who had interpreted it in this way.  In essence there was never any reference of historical ‘starts’ in calculating what providers could tender for.

“Our view is this significant change to the live tendering process and adds further backing for our calls to review the arbitrary £200k minimum contracting cap.  We have called for this cap to be scrapped, but the ESFA have told us that now that the procurement is live, it must remain.

“This late change to how the ESFA are measuring historical delivery means that yet more high quality providers will be pushed under the minimum contracting threshold and fall out of scope for a direct contract.  Just because providers are small doesn’t mean they are not high quality and play an important role in the marketplace.”