Is a criminal investigation into 3aaa about to begin?

A criminal investigation into disgraced apprenticeship firm Aspire Achieve Advance could soon be launched after the Department for Education requested a meeting with the police.

The company, better known as 3aaa, went into administration on October 11 after the government pulled its skills funding contracts following allegations of fraud.

Derbyshire Constabulary then started making enquiries into the defunct provider, following a referral from Action Fraud, while the DfE continued to conduct its own investigation separately, which got underway in the summer.

In December the police told FE Week that it was waiting for the DfE to conclude its own investigation before deciding whether a criminal investigation needs to be opened.

The DfE now appears to have finished its work and has requested a sit down with officers to discuss next steps.

“Officers from Derbyshire Constabulary and officials from the Department for Education are meeting imminently to discuss the enquiries regarding 3aaa,” a spokesperson for Derbyshire Constabulary said.

“At this time, no formal criminal investigation has been launched.”

The police force is expected to have all of the information from the DfE and whistleblowers following the meeting and will then decide if the findings break any laws. If this threshold is passed then a criminal investigation will open.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We do not routinely comment on the details of investigations, ongoing or otherwise”.

While the department has not yet made public the allegations into 3aaa, FE Week revealed what was behind their investigation in November.

The company, which had over 4,200 learners and 500 staff before it went bust when the ESFA pulled its £16.5 million contracts, allegedly manipulated Individualised Learner Records to artificially inflate achievement rates and misused employer-incentive grants.

3aaa, which received nearly all of its income from government skills funding, was co-founded by Peter Marples and Di McEvoy-Robinson in 2008, but the pair stepped down in September as the ESFA came knocking.

Their latest accounts show that they took out huge directors’ loans totalling more than £4 million between them, and at the end of 2015, both owners purchased multi-million pound properties.

3aaa splashed its public funding on £1.6 million of sports-club sponsorships, an Elton John concert and Tesla supercars among other luxuries.

This isn’t the first ESFA investigation into the company. In 2016 auditing firm KPMG was asked to carry out an investigation and found dozens of success rate “overclaims”.

It is understood this resulted in 3aaa paying back a substantial six-figure sum at the time.

But this didn’t stop the agency from giving the provider a £7 million apprenticeships contract increase in the same year.

After launching its second investigation into 3aaa in June, the DfE called in an independent auditor to investigate the ESFA over its contract management of the former apprenticeships giant.

Ofsted paused its inspection at 3aaa, which was expected to result in another grade one rating, in the summer after the DfE launched its investigation. The education watchdog told FE Week in November it was continuing to look into the provider but a final outcome has still not been reached.

Last month FE Week reported that more than half of the apprentices that were affected by the collapse of 3aaa had still not been found a new provider.