Demands for fairness after ESFA sets aside £2.6m in Somerset tender

The launch of a £2.6 million tender by the Education and Skills Funding Agency to deliver community learning services in Somerset has prompted demands for fairness and reform to the procurement process over the apparent special treatment.

The invitation to tender, published May 31, follows a campaign by community learning provider Somerset Skills and Learning for more funding, after it faced losing 97 per cent of its adult education budget following last year’s procurement debacle.

This included rallying four local Conservative MPs (pictured above), who held an emergency meeting last September with the skills minister, Anne Milton, to urgently review the massive cuts to SS&L’s funding.

Robert Halfon, chair of the influential education select committee, congratulated the MPs for their “brilliant campaign for their provider”.

“However, this does open a potential Pandora’s Box in procurement in that there are other procurement injustices in other parts of the country,” he said.

It was “another example of why the procurement process needs fundamental reform”, he said.

Mark Dawe, boss of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said that “whatever has been done for Somerset should be available to all AEB providers”. 

“We need to see fairness and transparency,” he demanded.

However, Susie Simon-Norris, chief executive of SS&L, said she was pleased the government had “recognised the importance of community learning in Somerset and that funds are being made available to support this vital provision in our county”.

“We have spent nearly a year working towards this position and fighting the case for Somerset,” she said.

SS&L has battled for more cash following last year’s AEB tender fiasco, which saw independent training providers bid for a share of just £110 million for adult education.

Its initial allocation of £111,000 represented just three per cent of the £3.4 million it received in 2016/17.

Following a campaign to lobby MPs and ministers, the ESFA made a partial U-turn on funding for providers which saw SS&L receive 75 per cent of its previous allocation on a “transitional basis”.

Nonetheless it was still forced to close centres and make redundancies.

FE Week reported in January that representatives from the provider were set to meet with ESFA officials to argue the case for more cash, claiming that Somerset was the only county in England not to get a major grant in the tender process.

However, it wasn’t the only provider to have faced massive cuts following the AEB tender process.

FE Week reported in September that a group of training providers was gearing up for collective action against the government’s process.

Community learning, which the ESFA’s ITT document defines as courses that are typically “unaccredited and can be undertaken for their own sake or as a step towards other learning / training”, is usually funded through the AEB.

It’s believed to be the first time the ESFA has run a procurement process specifically for this type of provision.

The contract on offer is to deliver community learning services in Somerset for an 11-month period from September, with the possibility of an extension.

The ITT is for a single provider to deliver community learning services within the geographical county of Somerset for an initial period from September 1 until July 31 next year with the possibility of extending for a further 12 months.

The “overall anticipated value” of the contract is £5,297,000, of which £2,597,000 is for the initial 11 month period.

It’s only on offer to a provider with a turnover of at least £2 million per year for the last three years “in order to ensure the provider is able to deliver the required volume of services”.

This is likely to limit the number of providers eligible to bid for the contract.

FE Week has asked the ESFA why it has launched the tender now, but has yet to receive a response.

Photo caption: From left: David Warburton, MP for Somerton and Frome, James Heappey, MP for Wells, Anne Milton, apprenticeships and skills minister, Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, and Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil