There is a theme across four stories in FE Week today which combined might suggest there is a critical business problem with funding rules and data requirements – complexity.

Let’s look at the stories in turn.

1. ESFA finds achievement rate data ‘unreliable’. Behind the scenes the ESFA audit teams continue to grapple with providers inflating achievement rates and funding claims by knowingly or unwittingly manipulating their Individualised Learner Record (ILR) data returns. The highly complex algorithm to calculate achievement rates using ‘hybrid ends years’ has required several changes, such as to the treatment of breaks in learning and transfers, in an attempt to close loopholes. But the situation has now got so bad that more than 30 apprenticeship providers have been singled out, and the UK Statistics Authority in looking into whether the headline achievement rates can be trusted.

2. Confusion over how to calculate and record off-the job minimum hours. In an effort to be helpful the ESFA put out guidance, nearly two years after implementation, which said to comply with the funding rules the off the job minimum hours should be based on a 30 hour week for all apprentices. A week later, after claiming this was not a change the rules, the ESFA apologised and withdrew the 30 hour section of the guidance. Trouble is, a quick glance at the dozens of comments on the ESFA message board, FE Connect, shows providers are still grappling with complex issues like the difference between paid and contract hours leaving them unsure if they actually comply with the off-the-job minimum hour calculation rules.

3. Devolution of AEB at risk of falling at first data hurdle. The GLA has revealed in papers going to their board next week that developing a contracting and payments system, to include collection of FE data, is at high risk of creating an overspend. The ESFA already operates a very expensive and complex funding system based on monthly ILR submissions, so we should perhaps not be surprised trying to recreate it from scratch is both difficult and also wasteful duplication.

4. Employer left bemused after Apprenticeship System wipes £300,000 from their account. After five months, the ESFA still could not explain or resolve what appears to be a significant problem with the Apprenticeship System. Within hours of FE Week asking for an explanation the money reappeared, but questions remain over how and why this can happen. And the ESFA has delayed access to the system for small employers indefinitely as it grapples with issues like how to simplify complex functionality as well as ration the funding between established and untested providers.

Performance information needs to be trustworthy, funding rules need to be clear enough to comply with and payment and contracting systems simply need to work.

There are no easy solutions, but if these cannot be achieved then the tougher intervention regimes for colleges and training providers (also featured in the paper this week) are doomed to fail.