College refuses to explain spending millions on mysterious subcontractor

A college has refused to explain why it has given £16.5 million over the last three years to a subcontracting partner that employs fewer than 10 people.

Brooklands College relies on SCL Security Ltd, a private provider run by Andrew Merritt, to deliver hundreds of level-three IT apprenticeships every year, for mostly 16-to-18-year-olds.

The company claims on the government’s Find Apprenticeship Training website to “operate training centres nationwide”, but its own website makes no reference to any training venues – the only address is for a head office in Kent.

FE Week has also been unable to find any evidence of the company advertising for apprentices, or of who the employers are, raising questions as to how it recruits learners.

SCL only employed eight people in 2017, according to its most recent company accounts, and seven the year before.

Its website, which has the Brooklands College logo displayed, does not name any staff, but the Find Apprenticeship Training site lists Mr Merritt as SCL’s contact.

The government site says Mr Merritt – the company’s managing director – is “always available for consultation and will make himself known to you, runs the company with the help of operations managers, both regional and ethnic, and with the backup great admin and training staff”.

FE Week put all of these points to Brooklands and asked the college to justify handing over millions of pounds for delivery to SCL, but it declined to comment.

All a spokesperson would say is: “Brooklands College has very successful apprenticeship provision and works in partnership with training providers to meet the needs of a range of employers. Brooklands College is not able to comment on commercially sensitive information.”

SCL Security did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the college’s latest self-declaration subcontracting data, the private training provider has cashed in over £16.5 million between 2014/15 to 2016/17 from deals with Brooklands, with £3.4 million top-sliced and retained by the college.

Minutes from a June 2017 board meeting at Brooklands states that the money from the arrangement accounts for up to 85 per cent of SCL’s total income, and 80 per cent of the college’s subcontracting provision.

The minutes reveal that Brooklands identifies SCL as a “risk”, as it is a “sole trader” and could go “bust” or “elsewhere” with its business.

They even asked if a “disaster-recovery plan” was required because of this.

The minutes add that a Brooklands leader and his team “speak with staff from SCL most days, SCL receive a substantial amount of Brooklands staff time and support” and that in addition Brooklands  undertakes “due diligence, employer and learner surveys and the monthly monitoring of learners”. “Internal audit also undertake a mandatory SFA audit of subcontractors each spring term” and the Brooklands team “have a clear understanding of the risks regarding reliance with SCL and are endeavouring to minimise the exposure of the relationship”.

Brooklands was hoping to merge with the Guildford College Group, but minutes from February 2018 reveal it was rejected after “feedback suggested that Guildford felt the level of subcontracting undertaken at Brooklands presented a risk”.

The college’s latest accounts show that it went from a £224,000 surplus in 2016 to a £156,000 deficit the following year. Its February 2018 audit-committee minutes show that the college has another “projected budget deficit” on its way.

Brooklands was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted in 2013 and has since received a short inspection and a monitoring visit, both of which said it was making reasonable progress.

SCL Security has never been inspected by the education watchdog, but received its first ESFA allocation this year, totalling £1 million for a mix of apprenticeships and adult-education provision, and is now in scope for inspection.

It also subcontracts for Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, with a current deal worth £1.7 million. The college also did not respond to request for comment about this relationship.