Every month, Anne Milton, the minister in charge of skills and apprenticeships, will write a column for FE Week, giving her perspective on the issues facing the sector. For her first outing, she tackles the non-levy procurement exercise

As a government we have made significant changes to the way our apprenticeship system will work – placing quality at the heart of this programme, with employers centre-stage. Our wider reforms have introduced a number of important changes, which will naturally present challenges for businesses, so this is a chance for me to explain some of those.

I want to use my first column to talk about the non-levy procurement process, which was undertaken to fund organisations who can provide training to smaller businesses. This has meant providers have faced important changes to the way they receive funding before the apprenticeship service becomes the norm for every employer in 2019.

This procurement has been all about ensuring and increasing access to apprenticeship training for small- and medium-sized employers

The procurement exercise was not a policy choice, but as a contracting authority we were under a legal obligation to run it in order to comply with the EU’s Public Contracts Regulations 2015.

Tender exercises like this are always tough, and I’ve been open about these challenges after we had to restart it when we saw that the outcomes would not have delivered our goals of stability and continuity. Throughout this process, we have wanted to be careful, to take the time to get this right for providers, apprentices and employers. I know it won’t have been an easy time for many.

So that we can help keep the supply of training as stable as possible, we introduced a number of elements. This included capping the amount of funding for which different providers could bid, and a minimum contract award of £200,000 to make sure all contracts awarded would be financially viable. That naturally has led to disappointment from some, and I understand the challenges this led to for those who did not win contracts.

We wanted all providers to do their best and published evaluation and scoring criteria to help them in this process. Unfortunately, this was still a competition and not every bid – and we received over 1,000 of them – could be successful in such a highly competitive bidding process.

We were mindful of the uncertainty, and took steps to extend the contracts of all current providers that were unsuccessful by a further three months. Of course, we will also make sure all existing apprenticeships continue to be funded until they are completed.

This procurement has been all about ensuring and increasing access to apprenticeship training for small- and medium-sized employers. We are encouraging them to take on apprentices and to take advantage of support available, including the joint investment of 90 per cent of training and assessment costs for apprenticeships provided by the government.

The awards have maintained the same proportion of funding across each of the nine regions as is currently delivered, and allow providers to meet the demand across all of the sectors apprenticeships currently support.

We have also enabled more new providers and employers to enter the market, while still supporting the existing supply where we could; approximately 95 per cent of the funding awarded will be to providers currently delivering apprenticeships.

Anne Milton is Minister for skills and apprenticeships