If the sector’s reputation is ever to recover from the damage caused by college and ITP failures, the ESFA needs to be more than just a ‘funding body’, writes Tony Allen

As an ex-deputy director of the SFA, news that Dame Mary Ney’s anticipated report into college finances will highlight serious shortcomings on the part of the organisation has piqued my interest. The report is likely to focus on some of the more technical aspects of college finances.

However, there is one important and easy-to-grasp reason why colleges and independent training providers (ITPs) fail, and I hope Dame Mary will touch on it: the lack of effective contract management and support from the ESFA.

In many respects, Ian Pryce, CEO of Bedford Colleges Group summed it up perfectly when he said “you spot things early when you have strong human relationships”.

From its inception as 47 LSCs in 2001, up until 2015, by which time it had become the SFA, the sector could rely on effective contract management for all providers. Towards the end of this period, colleges were managed by regional teams, and the employers and largest ITPs by a national team. Their role was to get to know the colleges and ITPs, to provide support, protect public investment, and to promote government priorities. Unlike our current reactive way of working, always on the back foot as it responds to problems, the system was proactive in encouraging the ‘right’ behaviour.

Whatever the actual structures involved, having people within the SFA who regularly interacted with senior staff at colleges and providers brought many benefits. We had a much better sense of what was going on. We advised and supported, managed risks, and dealt with issues as they were arising. Face-to-face support by individual and group methods headed off many early problems. The nature of the relationship meant that colleges and providers were much more likely to share their concerns and worries than they are now.

It was believed that risk could be managed by a service desk approach

In 2016, as part of DfE-mandated staffing reductions, the SFA decided that ‘supportive’ contract management as we had known it was no longer needed. It was made clear that giving advice and support to colleges, and especially ITPs, was not part of a ‘funding body’s’ role. Frankly, it was believed that the risk could be managed by a service desk approach, and by analysing data in Coventry. Nobody was interested in the positive side of contract management or the benefits that could accrue, such as promoting apprenticeship growth.

As I was leaving the then-SFA, I pointed out to the senior team the implications of what they were doing, but the value of what we had been doing for many years was effectively dismissed.

Yet there is a clear correlation between the lack of supportive contract management and what has happened since. We have seen a number of high-profile college ‘financial’ failures, not to mention the demise of Positive Outcomes, First4Skills, 3AAAs and Learndirect, to name but a few on the ITP front.

Realistically, even if the ESFA, as it is now called, still had teams in place managing colleges and providers as effectively as in the past, they would not have been able to altogether prevent some of the more recent failures. The sad fact is that a determined individual in any organisation can hide the truth from those above.

However, at worse, the ESFA would have had their finger more closely on the pulse, and would have been aware much earlier of the problems that some colleges and large providers were facing. Even that worse-case scenario would have been better than what we have now.

No other part of the public sector allows an organisation with a contract worth millions of pounds a year to effectively be told to ‘get on with it’, and the only meaningful contact with the regulator being when it looks like things are going wrong.  

Whatever other reforms Dame Mary’s report suggests, until we restore proper, consistent and supportive regulatory oversight based on relationships, we will simply continue to see college and ITP failures. Our sector deserves better than to keep seeing its reputation battered in this way.