The ESFA has ridden rough-shod over the work of many vital third sector providers. Tim Ward wants answers

Imagine the outcry if, at the beginning of the year, the ESFA had come out with a policy that would move money from one area to another without any reference to local stakeholders. What if it took non-formula-funded community learning away from third sector organisations, effectively closed the a major county’s largest community learning service, and reduced the budgets of long-established learning providers by 50 per cent or more in the middle of their operating year?

At least if the ESFA had announced this as a policy we would have had the opportunity to challenge and debate its implications and impact. We could have highlighted the potential loss of opportunities for disadvantaged learners, for rural areas and for those whose needs don’t fit neatly into nationally determined “priorities”.

As things stand, this is exactly what has happened as a result of the adult education budget procurement exercise. It was done without any public consultation or discussion about the impact on current and potential learners that will result from the ruination of learning opportunities. Many of these opportunities were offered by providers who have been praised by Ofsted for their work in supporting vulnerable learners to progress to further learning and work.

All the procurement is actually testing is the ability to answer exam questions, rather than genuine capacity and intent

When challenged, the ESFA has argued that the process was legally compliant with the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. In other words, it did things in the right way. What is missing from its response is any consideration as to whether it did the right thing.

I do not personally believe that as a general principle that this procurement approach is the way to ensure that public money is spent well and effectively. However, this is the world we live in, though the process could have been designed in a way that recognised the richness of the learning activities delivered through the AEB, and the variations of need that exist in different areas and communities.

Unfortunately, those responsible chose not to approach it in this way, and used a simplistic, top-down approach. Worryingly, there seems to have either been a lack of understanding, or a lack of concern, about the impact of the methodology used. I leave you to decide which of these applies.

Looking beyond the issue of the process’ impact on learners, there are two particularly irrational consequences that strike me. Those who won a contract are facing in-year cuts of 50 per cent compared with previous years, while those who were not successful or did not bid are being given transitional contracts with much smaller reductions. The ESFA argues that the former will have the opportunity for in-year growth, but recent experience of cuts and zero growth suggests that this opportunity is theoretical. At the very least, the ESFA should provide “successful” bidders with similar transitional support to those provided to the unsuccessful bidders.

The second is that unless the funding rules are changed, those who have won a contract will have the flexibility to deliver anything within the AEB rules including “non-priority” learning, for example to meet local priorities determined by an LEP. In other words, all the procurement is actually testing is the ability to answer exam questions, rather than genuine capacity and intent.

Many providers, particularly third sector providers, originally gained their contracts in the early days of the LSC some 15 years ago. Until this year, their funding was renewed annually subject to performance and policy direction. This public investment allowed the development of a network of providers with accumulated expertise and experience.

Both the data and Ofsted show the quality, relevance and success of their learning programmes. It is a tragedy for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our communities that a poorly designed procurement process will lead to the loss of this capacity at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Tim Ward is chief executive of the Third Sector National Learning Alliance