It all seemed so sensible when the ESFA first announced at the FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference in March 2016 that they would be launching a Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP).
Employers would be able to choose from a list of “high-quality” providers and everyone would have confidence that the annual £2bn of public money would be well spent in England.
Following an application process, the sector was left in shock in March 2017 to discover the ESFA’s claim of “top-quality” included the inclusion on RoATP of many newly incorporated companies with no trading history.
These companies on RoAPT, many still with no apprenticeship delivery, can then be bought for around £50,000 as a way to gain access to public funding.
But, the problem is not so much with the ability to buy and sell companies on a government register.
The problem was created when the ESFA let companies onto the register with no trading history and no filed accounts.
It was particularly easy to get on without a trading history because the ESFA was having to judge plans instead of track record, when it came to capacity, quality and finances.
In fact, perverse as it may sound, it would have been easier for the owners of an established provider with poor quality or financial issues to incorporate a new company and apply based on a fictional plan.
The ESFA has belatedly realised their RoAPT application process was deeply flawed, and the register has been closed to new applicants for a full year now.
But, as we expose this week, the longer it is closed the more value those on it may be able extract in a sale.
So the ESFA must prioritise a complete overhaul of the register, urgently, starting with a reapplication process for everyone that has not had a satisfactory visit from Ofsted in the last five years – which will include those that have not started any apprentices since May 2017.
Then the new application process needs to set the capacity, quality and finances bar far higher, with a process of due diligence commensurate with the ‘top quality’ claims.
This would put an end to the madness of someone simply setting up a company in name alone, so as to sell access to a government approved register.