ESFA planning to limit providers by standards

The Education and Skills Funding Agency is working on plans to require providers to be “accredited” for the apprenticeship standards they offer.

Keith Smith, the agency’s director of apprenticeships, this week said the limits are being considered to give employers more “confidence” in the “future” register of apprenticeship training providers.

Currently, end-point assessment organisations can only assess apprenticeship standards they’re experts in and approved for via application.

Yet providers that have never delivered apprenticeships have no restrictions on which or how many standards they deliver.

During a speech at FE Week’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference on Tuesday, Smith said: “That is something we talk a lot about in terms of the future provider register and the extent to which we should start to look at accreditation by a different type of standard.

“At the moment we have taken the view that we want to provide the opportunity that providers can play to their strengths. One thing we are beefing up in the provider register all the time is looking at the capacity of those providers in their workforce, about the professionalisation and the skills they bring to the bear in the sector.”

He continued: “We are trying really carefully to make sure we understand what it is to be a good provider, to actually have confidence in the provider register, and very carefully understand how we give assurance to employers and apprentices that they are going to be finding their way to new providers who actually have the right capacity and infrastructure to be able to do good things.

“More on that to come.”

Smith added that it is “the reality” that providers will already be specialising in certain standard areas, and his agency is working to ensure any limits do not add further unnecessary layers of “bureaucracy” for training organisations.

Any restrictions would form the second phase of the ESFA’s attempts to strengthen its register of apprenticeship training providers, which was relaunched last year following a host of problems with the original application process.

One-man bands with no delivery experience were, for example, being given access to millions of pounds of apprenticeships funding.

FE Week analysis shows that the ESFA has cut the number of main and employers providers on the register down by a quarter over the past year – from 2,234 in April 2019 to 1,628 in February 2020.

The reduction shouldn’t come as a major surprise considering the agency had promised to tighten up the register’s application rules and kick off those who aren’t delivering.

But this cull still has some way to go, as FE Week analysis also shows a further 29 per cent of providers currently on there are still not delivering and many more are in single starts figures.

What makes restrictions even more likely is the fact that new providers with no track record will no longer be limited by a lack of non-levy allocation from November 1 as the ESFA moves small employers onto the digital apprenticeship system.

FE Week understands there are also plans being drawn up to potentially introduce funding caps on providers yet to have full Ofsted inspection.

Last year, the education watchdog was handed £5.4 million to carry out monitoring visits of all new apprenticeship providers, which have so far suggested the quality at about a quarter of them is poor.

It is also understood that the ESFA will dedicate a special team to watch over the largest apprenticeship providers to ensure the sector does not suffer from another “too big to fail” scenario if one of them goes bust, as was the case with Learndirect.