With an initial 2014/15 contract value of £3.1m, 3aaa was a relatively small apprenticeship provider when it received its first Ofsted inspection in October 2014.
The resulting ‘outstanding’ grade proved a catalyst for very rapid growth with help from the ESFA in the form of funding increases to an allocation of £31m less than two years later.
The Ofsted grade one also proved hugely important in one of several failed attempts to sell the business as soon as April 2015, with a price tag rumoured to be well in excess of £50 million.
What we now know is that after a whistle blower came forward the ESFA employed KPMG to conduct a highly secretive investigation in 2016 that found inflated achievement rates.
The ESFA did not tell Ofsted, despite the high achievement rates featuring prominently in the 2014 inspection.
More whistleblowers followed, and the ESFA has spent most of 2018 conducting a second investigation, resulting in the founders resigning, a stop being put on starts and supporting the sale of the business to protect the learners.
Again, the second investigation found concern over inflated achievement rates but again Ofsted has been kept in the dark, now more than four months since they paused their 2018 inspection.
As if to reinforce the commercial significance of a grade one, the paused inspection even features in current 3aaa sales documents, telling potential buyers they have the “highest quality learning provision with all areas graded outstanding in the draft Ofsted report (May 2018)”.
It would of course be easy to excuse Ofsted for the grade one ratings, on the basis the ESFA was either hiding or withholding the investigation findings from them.
But as reported this week, Ofsted could and should have inspected last year when a number of the inspectorates own risk measures would have been flashing red.
Published achievement rates had plummeted, the volume of provision had quadrupled within a single year and at least one whistle blower had raised safe guarding concerns.
How many more reasons do they need to inspect a huge apprenticeship provider trading on their grade one from 2014?
Presented with all the evidence, an Ofsted spokesperson blamed a lack of resources and a change in the achievement rate calculation for the decision not to inspect in 2017.
This is of course all history now, but we have not reached the end of this story.
Ofsted now know the ESFA hid evidence of achievement rate inflation from them in 2016, which should surely bring into question the validity of the 2014 inspection.
And Ofsted are still sat waiting for an answer from the ESFA as to what they found in the 2018 investigation.
Is the ESFA refusing to share information with Ofsted to keep them away, whilst they support a sale?
And will Ofsted ever conclude their paused inspection if the sale goes through?
Once the sorry 3aaa saga has ended, the lesson is surely going to be that oversight from the agencies we rely on, has failed, like with Learndirect, again.
And as with Learndirect, the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee may well come knocking for answers of their own