AOs investigate private provider to church groups following misuse of funding concerns

Multiple awarding organisations are investigating an apprenticeship provider to church community groups after Ofsted raised potential misuse of funding concerns in a damning ‘inadequate’ report this week.

Inspectors found that Touchstone Educational Solutions Ltd, which has Education and Skills Funding Agency contracts totalling more than £2 million, worked with employers who did not recognise the names of their apprentices.

They also found that the provider does not withdraw learners in a “timely manner” which leads to funding claims continuing after they have left their courses.

The Ofsted report said that Touchstone recruits the vast majority of its 450 learners and apprentices from church community groups at its sites in Woolwich, Greenwich and Leeds.

As well as apprenticeships in care management, Touchstone offers adult learning programmes paid for via advance learner loans in health and social care, access to higher education (nursing), business administration and childcare, and functional skills courses in maths and English.

We already set checking processes in place

It lists seven awarding organisations on its website, all of which told FE Week they were not aware of the funding concerns prior to the Ofsted report. However, a number of them have said they are now looking into the provider.

“Highfield is currently looking into the concerning information arising from the Ofsted report published on November 26, 2018,” said a spokesperson for Highfield Qualifications.

“We are unable to comment any further whilst our investigations continue.”

Awards for Training and Higher Education said that as an Ofqual regulated awarding organisation, it was “informed by Ofqual as to Ofsted’s findings on November 15, 2018 but at this time the report was not available”.

A spokesperson confirmed that the awarding organisation “accessed the report immediately” after it was available on the Ofsted website and has “already set checking processes in place”.

“ATHE undertakes Ofqual audited quality assurance procedures for all its recognised centres – including initial health checks and ongoing monitoring and development and external verification visits,” she added.

“ATHE procedures will continue to be applied accordingly.”

Touchstone’s other awarding organisations: NCFE, OCR, City & Guilds, Innovate Awarding, and Gateway Qualifications said they were not investigating the provider.

Ofsted said the delivery of all of Touchstone’s provision was insufficient, and leaders, governors and managers “do not have an accurate view of the quality of the programmes and do not have effective plans in place to make improvements”.

The biggest concern was around the provider’s management of data.

“File management is very weak and records about learners are very poor, with missing or inaccurate information,” inspectors found.

“Leaders are too slow to withdraw those learners and apprentices who have asked to be taken off their programme. Consequently, claims for funding continue to be made for apprentices who are no longer in learning.”

They added: “Too many employers do not know how much progress their apprentices make. Some employers did not recognise the names of the apprentices who, according to the apprenticeship files, are supposed to be with them.”

The inspectorate also found that plagiarism is an issue at the provider.

“Assessed and formally accredited work cannot be reliably attributed to individual learners, a few of whom have received qualification certificates.”

On top of this, arrangements for safeguarding adult learners and apprentices are “ineffective”.

“Learners and apprentices do not have a sufficient understanding of the dangers associated with extremism and radicalisation,” inspectors said.

As it has been rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, Touchstone will now be removed from the register of apprenticeship training providers and banned from delivering its own apprenticeships. The ESFA is also likely to terminate all of its other skills contracts with the provider.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We will always take action to protect learners if a training provider is not fit for purpose. We are currently assessing Ofsted’s findings and will be contacting Touchstone Education Solutions to set out the action we will be taking in due course.”

Touchstone did not respond to repeated requests for comment.