Grade 4 provider to close after losing Ofsted appeal

The first FE provider to receive a grade four under Ofsted’s new inspection regime is closing down.

Sixteen jobs are set to be lost and hundreds of learners will be affected after an appeal by independent learning provider Mercia Partnership (UK) Ltd failed to overturn an ‘inadequate’ rating, first published in October.

The provider, which was set up in 1995, currently operates from two centres – one in Chorley, Lancashire, and one in Newhaven, East Sussex – delivering a range of apprenticeships and adult learning programmes.

The Department for Education issued Mercia Partnership with an early termination warning notice following the grade four. A spokesperson for the provider said they will officially close the business by August.

Mercia Partnership offered praise to the education watchdog’s new inspection framework, describing its methods as “right and appropriate” and “100 times better” than the previous one.

However, they said the way Ofsted went about its inspection was “poor” and the sample of learners did not give the “full picture”.

The spokesperson said the appeal was “a waste of time”, accused an inspector of causing a safeguarding issue during the visit, and claimed it was “unfair” to be judged on some learners that it took on from collapsed providers.

They alleged that the education watchdog apologised for an incident in which an inspector phoned an adult learner with severe anxiety, despite acknowledging they needed prior warning before being contacted. The learner reportedly never returned to complete their course after the call.

The spokesperson also said Mercia had taken on learners from two collapsed providers. This had been a “very bitter pill to swallow”, and had “worked against” the firm.

Some of the learners “were in limbo for six months” and had been taken on “at the request of the ESFA”, the provider claimed, adding that “all the negative comments in the report were purely based on these learners they spoke to that had come from another provider”.

“It was very unfair to be judged on learners having gaps in learning when it wasn’t [Mercia Partnership’s] fault,” the spokesperson said.

“We’ve basically been shut down on the back of the helping learners.”

They warned that “ethics will go out the window” for training firms when making business decisions about taking on learners from failed providers – adding that the judgement “is going to be detrimental to learners moving forward”.

The spokesperson also criticised the education watchdog’s lack of transparency on evidence collected after asking to access negative feedback received from past learners – who allegedly told Mercia Partnership they had praised it.

Ofsted’s report stated that learners and apprentices “do not experience a well-planned programme of study” and concluded the curriculum was “not fit for purpose” and “does not prepare them sufficiently for their future careers”.

It claimed apprentices “receive a poor standard of training” and are “unhappy, unmotivated, and, in some cases, very angry about the quality of their training”.

Ofsted reported that high staff turnover had “a negative impact” on apprentices’ learning with frequent changes in assessors leaving “significant gaps” in the training programme.

The education watchdog told FE Week it stands by the findings that are set out in the report, but declined to comment directly on the allegations.

An Ofsted spokesperson added: “When they visit further education colleges and skills providers our inspectors always take into account the starting points of learners and how they are progressing – regardless of where they came from.”

The inspection of Mercia Partnership took place between September 17 and 20 last year.

Prior to this, the independent learning provider had been graded ‘good’ in the most recent full inspection in 2015, ‘requires improvement’ in 2014 and ‘satisfactory’ in both 2012 and 2008.

It had direct contracts with the Education and Skills Funding Agency totalling £1.9 million in 2018/19.