Registrations for courses on the government’s “skills toolkit” that have been celebrated by ministers could be coming from anywhere in the world, the Department for Education has admitted.
More than £1 million of public money has been spent on developing and advertising the “platform”, which directs visitors to free online content provided by the likes of Amazon, the Open University, Microsoft and LinkedIn.
Ministers across government have hailed the success of the toolkit since it launched in April 2020. Education secretary Gavin Williamson declared that it had had a “transformational” impact on the digital and numeracy skills for England’s out-of-work people during the pandemic.
But little is known about who is accessing the content as most do not require registrations. And, as FE Week previously revealed, significant overcounting has already led to revised estimates of “course start” claims in official statistics which continue to include web hits.
FE Week has now discovered that the DfE is also unable to identify from which countries the registrations are coming. The department said the data is held and reported by the relevant providers who “do not provide country data, so DfE cannot confirm the country related to course registrations”.
A number of providers with courses on the skills toolkit have confirmed that they do not filter for registrations that are England-based only.
Toby Perkins, Labour’s shadow apprenticeships and lifelong learning minister, criticised the DfE for “failing to enact themselves the kind of data collection they would routinely insist on from other providers”.
He added: “The government is very happy to make statistically questionable claims about the skills toolkit, yet it’s clear that it has no idea who is accessing the website and to what extent those people are utilising it.
“No one wants to make this small and potentially valuable initiative unduly bureaucratic, but it is important that they are aware of who is using it, who it is reaching and failing to reach, and that information should be both collected and published.
“We all want to celebrate successful initiatives but, without this data, I don’t think it’s possible to be sure how successful the skills toolkit is in improving the skills and opportunities of British workers and learners.”
When asked if the DfE was concerned that it had no grasp on what countries course registrations were coming from, a spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring that the skills toolkit is accessible and of value to people across the country.”
They added that the department was “able to identify England-based website visits in line with GDPR” through the toolkit.
This latest revelation comes as FE Week continues to challenge the DfE to release the names of firms that were given almost £800,000 to develop the platform. The department has kept the names a secret so far, refusing a freedom of information request.
Through the same FOI request the DfE did release a breakdown of the 118,980 course registrations by each provider on the skills toolkit as of 1 November 2020, which has caused further concern at the official figures being reported.
A course provided by Corndel called “organisational financial management: an introduction”, for example, is reported as having had 8,090 starts. However, the provider says that it does not track the usage of the materials and no “registration” data has been provided to the DfE.
The DfE has also come under fire for claiming the courses on the skills toolkit are of “high quality”, considering they receive no quality assurance from the likes of Ofsted or Ofqual and many of the courses simply involve short video tutorials or PDF documents.
Sue Pember, a former director of FE funding in the DfE, previously said: “When the DfE puts out its own advertising for the toolkit, it always talks about good quality. But under whose judgment? It may be, but how do they know?”
She added that the DfE should be “cautious” as “website hits or even signatures on enrolment forms do not equate to learning taking place”.
Latest official data published by the DfE claims that, as of 27 December 2020, there have been an estimated 138,000 course registrations. The department does accept that these are “experimental statistics” and says it is working to collect “more robust estimates of registrations”.