My specialist subject on Mastermind would be the ESFA funding rules for subcontracting.

I can quote documents and paragraphs for every year going back a decade because my business has in part grown by personally delivering commercial training to help colleges and training providers stay on the right side of the increasingly complex and confusing rules.

In 2011 I even wrote a guide to subcontracting policy, commissioned, funded and published by a government quango.

In addition, FE Week has typically been first to report rule changes and expose when they have been broken.

So I feel well placed to comment on the ESFA’s latest letter, a decade too late, threatening yet more subcontracting rules following the £20 million scandal at Brooklands College.

But first the ESFA need to get their own house in order.

The ESFA letter to providers ends with current ‘Subcontracting Requirements and Intervention and Oversight Policies’. 

Eight documents with a total of 426 pages, plus a lengthy webpage, all liable to be updated at any time during the contractual year.

But, even these documents don’t include summary of changes or other ESFA documents doing the rounds, all of which can contradict the rules.

Mastermind question one: Should apprenticeship providers reduce the price when subcontracting to an employer?

In March 2018, ten months into the contractual year, the ESFA published version 6 of the 2017/18 funding rules.

Alongside the rules was an 8 page summary of changes document, which included conflicting “clarifications”.

One clarification said the overall price should not be reduced: “Where an employer is legitimately delivering training or providing an eligible cost the overall price should not be reduced.”

Another clarification said the price should be reduced to exclude profit: “where the employer is the delivery sub-contractor actual costs must be used. An employer should not make a profit on the delivery to their own employees.”…“we will only pay actual costs and this must be recorded”.

When I asked the ESFA for an explanation at the time they emailed me to say: “we mean that the overall price should not be discounted to completely remove the employer element”.

Mastermind question two: When should apprenticeship providers apply the subcontracting rules to an employer if the employer delivers some of the relevant training themselves?

When seeking clarity from the ESFA in March 2017, they said the following: “All providers should be clear that any delivery of training is classed as sub-contracting, regardless of who is delivering it, the volume or the financial amount.”

So far so clear, and I think nearly all providers would today say the answer to the question is “always”.

But they would be wrong.

It seems this rule was quietly changed last month, with no update to the funding rules, in an obscure document, updated for the third time, associated with the off-the-job training policy.

Buried away on page 31 of version three of the ESFA’s “Apprenticeship off-the-job training: policy background and examples” document, published on the 13 September 2019, is paragraph 109.

It states: “If the employer is delivering relevant training associated with the apprenticeship framework or standard, without which the apprenticeship cannot be achieved, then they are potentially a subcontractor. The acid test is whether apprenticeship funding is being used”… “if the employer is not accessing apprenticeship funding then they are not considered to be a subcontractor.”

So there you have it, a significant change to the subcontracting rules that are not even published in the funding rules.

If we are to expect providers to play this game the answers needs to be consistent and clear.

This may all sound complex, and it is, but it sits at the core of the problem for the ESFA.

They have to get a grip of both their communications and rules – which have spiralled out of all control over the last few years.

If they cannot do it, then the job should go to an agency that can.

Mastermind question three: If the technical machinations of the funding rules are not understood by anyone then what hope is there to enforce them?

Answers on a postcard please…