ESFA 'considering' extensions to coronavirus supplier relief schemes

The Education and Skills Funding Agency is “considering” reopening its Covid-19 supplier relief after the Cabinet Office announced the scheme will continue until October 31.

The Cabinet Office’s Procurement Policy Note (PPN 02/20), which allows public authorities to pay their suppliers in advance of delivering during the coronavirus pandemic, was due to end on July 31 but was extended yesterday.

In updated guidance named PPN 04/20, the Cabinet Office said all contracting authorities “should be reviewing existing arrangements as soon as reasonably possible”.

The ESFA’s own supplier relief scheme for non-levy apprenticeships and the adult education budget concluded last month and resulted in a third (107) of the 165 training providers that applied being awarded extra funding.

A separate relief scheme for European Social Fund providers was also run last month. The results are yet to be revealed.

Following the new Cabinet Office guidance, the agency tweeted today: “The Cabinet Office has published Procurement Policy Note 04/20. As a consequence we are considering the options for extending our Provider Relief Schemes, and will provide further information soon.”

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ chief executive Mark Dawe said the scheme “must reopen immediately”.

“With furloughing coming to an end, this is a timely intervention which ought to allow providers to plan through until the end of October and it’s absolutely essential that the DfE applies the latest guidance and extends the current relief scheme for non-levy apprenticeships, AEB and European Social Fund programmes,” he told FE Week.

“AELP has always maintained that the further we get into the summer, the situation with providers’ cash reserves is going to become critical and therefore the four-month extension could make a huge and positive difference.

“In our view, the DfE must reopen the relief application process immediately in the light of the Cabinet Office announcement.”

While non-levy apprenticeships were eligible for the ESFA’s relief scheme, any apprenticeships funded through the government’s digital system – mostly with levy-paying employers – were not.

The agency claimed this was because the contract is directly with the employer and provider rather than government. AELP challenged this legally but dropped the action last week after weighing up the costs.

Dawe said today that “we continue to struggle to understand why the DfE seems to be alone in not recognising that the supplier relief scheme should apply to all apprenticeships and other skills programmes”.

“It should be offering proper support instead of kicking the can down the road,” he added.

Karen Woodward, the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s deputy director for employer relations, told an FE Week webinar in May that many providers struggled to “prove need” for the financial support as a “number of them are not really facing huge cash flow problems at the moment”.

But she did acknowledge this situation could change beyond July as starts on new courses and apprenticeships dry up.