A chain of large training providers run by a well-known entrepreneur has collapsed amid a government investigation into their funding contracts.

Four companies – MiddletonMurray, Astute Minds, Teaching and Learning Group, and FNTC Training and Consultancy – which were owned by entrepreneur and media commentator Angela Middleton, have entered administration.

FE Week understands the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s Counter Fraud and Investigation Team had been actively probing how multiple contracts were used across all four of the companies – but a spokesperson for Middleton claims it is a standard annual audit and the decision to close was not related.

Official figures show that one of the companies, Astute Minds, delivered 620 (5 per cent) of all the government funded 16 to 18 year-old traineeships in 2018/19, more than any other provider.

The companies have surrendered their apprenticeship contracts and are no longer listed on the register of apprenticeship training providers.

They received a total of £7.2 million in ESFA allocations in 2019/20, including for FE loan-funded provision, non-levy apprenticeships, adult education budget, traineeships and 16 to 18 study programmes (see table).

A spokesperson claimed the companies were “subject of a standard audit looking at qualification and achievement rates along with a number of other providers” earlier this year but blamed the closure on Covid-19.

“Regrettably, having made every effort to keep trading, we have now been left with no alternative in the face of the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the economy and jobs market but to close the company,” they told FE Week.

“This was something we had been striving to avoid during the lockdowns with structured lay-offs and redundancies, across-the board pay cuts and various cost cutting measures as the employment market became increasingly devastated.”

The spokesperson would not say how many staff have lost their jobs in total, but said trading was suspended in November and the remaining 17 staff on their books had now been made redundant. Affected learners have also either completed training or been transferred to another provider, but they did not say how many learners had to move.

The Department for Education told FE Week they had put in place a “dedicated provider change” team “to support learners, apprentices and employers, and we are writing to all those affected to explain the next steps”.

A spokesperson said the department will work with employers and providers to ensure apprentices are transferred “as quickly as possible”.

The department declined to comment on the investigations.

The loss of Ofsted grade two Astute Minds in particular will be felt by the government, as it delivered 2,660 traineeship starts between 2014/15 and 2019/20.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced in July £111 million would be put towards tripling traineeship starts to over 40,000 in 2020/21, so losing such a valuable source of starts will make hitting that target even harder.

MiddletonMurray was last inspected by Ofsted in 2016, and was graded as ‘good’ for its provision to around 287 learners.

In a new provider monitoring report published in May 2019, the Teaching and Learning Group, was found to be making ‘insufficient progress’ in its provision to 24 apprentices.

Middleton receiving her MBE (Credit to www.angelamiddleton.com)

Angela Middleton was awarded an MBE for services to apprenticeship training, youth employment and business in 2018 (pictured).

She asserts on her website of appearing in big-name media outlets like Sky News and The Daily Telegraph, and has links to several high-profile politicians.

Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon wrote the foreword to her book, ‘Bridge that gap!: How schools can help students get their first job and build the career they want’, while Home Office minister James Brokenshire’s favourable review of her earlier book ‘How to get your first job and get the career you want’ is featured on its Amazon page.

In addition to the providers, she also operates several other active companies, some in the recruitment sector and some using the MiddletonMurray name, which do not have ESFA contracts.