The government’s non-levy procurement process wasn’t a fair competition because providers weren’t given all the information in advance, writes Patrik Knowles

Last December 7 was going to be a critical day across the sector, as providers found out the results of the long-awaited procurement exercise for “apprenticeship training to employers not using the digital account”, more commonly understood as “those employers who do not pay the apprenticeship levy”.

The results varied between providers: some celebrated success, some commiserated and others simply felt indifferent. The one thing the vast majority of us had in common, however, was a feeling of perplexity about the process the ESFA adopted, in particular its pro-rata methodology to calculate allocations for providers.

In the ESFA’s defence, we understand that it will not have known the calculation for this pro-rata methodology until it had received all of the tendered allocations within a specific region, but this lack of clarity only left everyone second-guessing.

Was this procurement exercise about quality or more about money?

As a ‘good’ provider ourselves, delivering apprenticeships to a wide range of employers large and small for over 20 years, we were disappointed to learn that we had not been successful. Passing the compliance and qualitative section of the tender was a great achievement, and we even scored maximum marks on one of the sections, but it came down to the pro-rata methodology, which subsequently reduced our allocation below the £200,000 threshold.

The invitation to tender document, paragraph 6.5 states: “The approach seeks to balance how the agency provides opportunity for growth, ensures stability of provision and encourages potential providers to submit realistic and deliverable proposals within the amount of funding available for award, taking into account factors such as non-levy historic delivery and experience in delivering all aspects of a contracted service.”

Like many other providers, we tendered for an allocation which was not only above the threshold but also one which was both realistic and deliverable as per the above, thereby ensuring we didn’t risk tendering for too much funding than we could deliver, an approach many would understand.

Furthermore, the ESFA made it clear that it was seeking to maintain stability of quality provision while recognising that the procurement would be a competitive exercise. Although this is an approach many of us would agree with, was this procurement exercise about quality or more about money?

Many high-quality providers with good track records, who passed the compliance and qualitative questions, were not awarded a tender based on the allocation they submitted because of a system likened to a lottery, which varied from region to region.

The vast majority would agree that the process lacked transparency

The vast majority would agree that the process lacked transparency. Had providers known the figures which would be used to make up the pro-rata calculation, everyone would of course have increased the allocation tendered for, including many successful providers which received a significant reduction in their original allocation.

The positive news that some providers have successfully appealed on the basis that their qualitative statements didn’t meet the required threshold mark also poses another question: if the ESFA has been able to revisit these tenders and overturn its original decision, does that mean there is the potential that the pro-rata methodology may have been calculated incorrectly?

A procurement exercise of this magnitude is always going to be a challenge for any government department, after all it is difficult to please everyone and you will always get winners and losers, but the sector’s passion for delivering quality apprenticeships will always lead us to ask whether some of those who missed out actually shouldn’t have.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate those providers who were successful, wish those who are appealing their decisions the best of luck and acknowledge that, through our passion and dedication, we as a sector will all continue to work with the ESFA in delivering the quality, much-needed services to support the government in its ambitions on education and skills.

Patrik Knowles is managing director of HYA Training