ESFA to pay 3aaa staff to help with apprentice transfer

The government has agreed to pay the wages of around 40 staff from apprenticeship giant Aspire Achieve Advance until the end of the month, even though the company ceased trading last week.

Nearly 500 people lost their jobs on October 11 as the provider, better known as 3aaa, had its funding withdrawn by the Education and Skills Funding Agency following a second investigation, the findings of which have now been passed on to the police.

The company’s website says it has now “ceased trading”, but questions have been raised over whether or not the provider has actually gone into administration. FE Week has so far been unable to confirm if any administrators have, in fact, been called in.

Regardless of 3aaa’s status, the ESFA is now tasked with finding new training providers for around 4,500 affected apprentices – but it has drafted in some unexpected help for the mammoth task.

Special treatment is being offered to around 40 members of 3aaa’s staff who have been asked to stay on, with salaries paid for by the ESFA until the end of October to move the learners on.

A spokesperson for the agency confirmed this and said the decision was made to ensure the apprentices are transferred to the right providers with a smooth transition.

FE Week understands this is the first time the ESFA has made such an arrangement – to keep paying the now-out-of-work staff after withdrawing their provider’s skills contracts.

It is retaining at least one staff member in each of 3aaa’s “academies” spread across the country.

In addition, it is understood that one of 3aaa’s top senior leaders, Anthony Bromirski, the company’s director of operations since 2013, is also being paid until the end of October.

FE Week approached him for comment but he did not respond.

The decision to keep on 3aaa staff to help with the transfer of apprentices may well have been affected by the ESFA’s past experience of carrying out such a strenuous task.

Another of the largest apprenticeship providers in England, First4Skills, called in the administrators after the agency terminated its contract in March 2017.

The provider, which held an annual £15 million apprenticeship allocation, had around 6,500 apprentices, all of whom needed to be found new training companies.

When asked by FE Week if the ESFA was keeping on the 3aaa staff because it doesn’t have enough resources, a spokesperson denied this was the case.

3aaa received over £31 million in government funding last year and had the largest allocation for non-levy apprenticeships – standing at nearly £22 million.

The government launched a second investigation into the company earlier this year following claims by a whistle-blower that prompted Ofsted to declare its inspection of the formerly “outstanding” 3aaa in June “incomplete”.

The first ESFA investigation, carried out by auditing firm KPMG in 2016, found dozens of success rate “overclaims”.

Following a meeting with the ESFA on October 10 this month, the agency decided not to provide any more public money to the company and withdrew its contracts.

The findings of the new investigation, which have so far not been shared, have been passed on to the police through Action Fraud.

Derbyshire Constabulary is now leading on enquiries.

In an email to customers last week, 3aaa managing director Richard Irons said any “historic data issues or previous investigations into the business” are “categorically not part of our current dialogue with the ESFA and precede new management”.

3aaa’s co-founders, Peter Marples and Di McEvoy-Robinson, resigned last month and have been uncontactable ever since, despite this newspaper’s numerous attempts to elicit comment.

Mr Marples took down his LinkedIn and Facebook pages last week. He then resigned from his position as chair of the Spencer Academies Trust.