Education secretary quizzed by MPs on timing and scope of coronavirus supplier relief

The education secretary today dodged an MP’s question about his department’s delay in launching supplier relief support for training providers.

On 20 March, the Cabinet Office published a policy notice that allowed payment in advance of delivery on publicly funded contracts up to 30 June owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mayoral combined authorities were quick off the mark in letting their training providers know how they would comply with the notice, but it took the Department for Education more than a month, until 24 April, to launch applications for support.

During an education select committee hearing primarily focussed on vulnerable children this morning, the first question on FE was from Ian Mearns MP who asked education secretary Gavin Williamson: “Why didn’t the DfE immediately comply with the Cabinet Office guidance and announce support for those providers with an ESFA contract? Why wasn’t this support package automatically done?”

Williamson offered a blunt response: “We always comply with Cabinet Office guidance and we always will do.”

Mearns pressed back the that “implication” is that the DfE “hasn’t done so on this occasion so I would ask you to look at that please”.

On Monday, apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan joined an FE Week webcast to answer questions on the same topic and described the difficulty in figuring out with Treasury which parts of the FE sector could benefit from the support (click here for full story).

Williamson went on in today’s hearing to state that apprenticeships will play a “really important part” of the country’s economic recovery from coronavirus.

He said his department has taken a “whole number of actions in terms of increasing the flexibilities so people can continue their apprenticeships” and quoted the Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ survey that found over 81 per cent of apprentices are “continuing [training] as we speak”.

“What we have been looking through the ESFA is how we support some of those apprenticeship providers who aren’t able to continue to deliver apprenticeships either through online learning or being able to access those apprentices in those critical areas where we are needing to preserve that high quality, how we can put a package there to support those providers and making sure we have a sustainable future in apprenticeships,” he added.

Applications for supplier relief need to be submitted to the ESFA by the end of this Thursday and cover procured adult education budget funding contracts and non-levy apprenticeship allocations.

Any potential ESFA supplier relief for providers of European Social Funding is still being considered.

Williamson was also questioned today on the DfE’s new ‘Skills Toolkit’. He confirmed this new “platform” was created through “existing resources that we corralled together” to help train adults’ digital and numeracy skills who are currently not in work.

He was also asked why the DfE was ploughing ahead with the launch of T-levels in September considering the disruption caused by the Covid-19 outbreak, to which he said the new qualifications are “one of the most important tasks that this government has”.

“I want to see that happen, I want to make that happen,” he added.

Williamson also touched on the Augar review and said the DfE’s response to it has been pushed back with the spending review.

And on the upcoming white paper and FE Bill, the education secretary said it has the possibility of being “revolutionary” for the sector and is currently being worked on by a task force led by the DfE’s new director of post-16 strategy, Keith Smith.