3aaa investigation stutters on as police confirm no contact has been made with top bosses

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The co-founders of a disgraced apprenticeship provider currently under police investigation are yet to be interviewed by officers, more than a year after inquiries began.

In October 2018 the government terminated its multi-million pound skills funding contracts with Aspire Achieve Advance, better known as 3aaa, after allegations of fraud. The case was referred to Derbyshire Constabulary.

The apprenticeship giant subsequently went bust with 4,200 learners and 500 staff on its books.

But a spokesperson for the constabulary has confirmed that no contact has been made with anyone who worked at the defunct firm, including the top bosses.

They could not say what work has been done over the past 12 months, even though in March the constabulary said that a “formal criminal investigation” into 3aaa had started.

The High Court placed 3aaa into compulsory liquidation in late October last year.

Anthony Hannon is the official receiver handling the insolvency, but his investigation into the collapse of 3aaa is also ongoing one year later.

A spokesperson said that the Insolvency Service has three years from the date of the company winding-up order to launch enforcement action “if it was to determine doing so was in the public interest in the light of any investigation findings”.

“Enforcement activity is pursued through the courts meaning that applications must be supported by information that meets the evidential standard for those proceedings,” they added.

Sanctions imposed by the official receiver, if he or she uncovers unfit director conduct, include director disqualification of between two and 15 years.

A total of 1,242 company directors were banned last year.

3aaa was co-founded by Peter Marples and Di McEvoy-Robinson in 2008, but the pair stepped down in September 2018.

The company was one of the biggest apprenticeship companies in England, holding £16.5 million in ESFA contracts when it went into administration on October 11 that year.

It received more than £31 million in government funding the year before it collapsed and had the largest allocation for non-levy apprenticeships, standing at nearly £22 million.

Evidence from a whistleblower, obtained by FE Week, showed how the provider inflated achievement rates by more than 20 percentage points, which contributed to a high Ofsted grade and more public funding.

In addition to data manipulation, 3aaa sales documents showed a potential £700,000 ESFA clawback. It is understood that this related to a range of apprenticeship and traineeship funding overclaims made through individualised learner record submissions.

The alleged misuse of grants from an apprenticeship incentive scheme in which 3aaa held on to £1.2 million that was supposed to go to employers is also under investigation.

The defunct company’s latest accounts show that its directors took out huge directors’ loans totalling more than £4 million between them, and that its two owners bought multi-million pound properties at the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, 3aaa spent its public funding on £1.6 million of sports-club sponsorships, an Elton John concert and Tesla supercars, among other luxuries.

Last year was not the first ESFA investigation. In 2016 the auditing firm KPMG was asked to carry out an investigation and found dozens of success rate “overclaims”.

It is understood this resulted in 3aaa paying back a substantial six-figure sum.

After launching its second investigation into 3aaa in June 2018, the DfE called in an independent auditor to investigate the ESFA over its contract management of the former apprenticeships giant.



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7 Comments

  1. What an absolute disgrace and at what cost to the taxpayer? Is Derbyshire Constabulary really that hard up they cannot afford the resources to speak to senior leaders to account for the allegations supposedly being investigated?

    The funding agency are clearly sending the wrong message out to the sector that it’s one thing to be slated in audit (remember Project Vanilla) and then award a £7M increase to a providers contract. This has connotations of a whitewash and at a time when providers are being reprimanded for failing to meet the 20% off-the-job funding rule requirement.

    ESFA – get your priorities in order!

    • Maybe there isn’t anything to investigate and all the allegations are false. Maybe there is no investigation because spending money on a Tesla is a very wise and efficient use of money and is very very tax efficient, and good for the environment, something that should be promoted.

      Clearly there is nothing to answer and there was no wrong doing. Maybe the whistleblower had a grudge and got things wrong.

      Innocent until proven guilty is the law of our land.

    • Julie Woolley

      Marcus P – do you remember the other huge provider that went the same way in Derbyshire a few years ago? Their name escapes me at the moment…Not to mention the A4E debacle. Lessons by ESFA are not being learnt. How funding contracts are granted needs much more scrutiny and monitoring

  2. Julie Woolley

    Radical changes needed to the way funding is provided. How about a deposit scheme (similar to landlords) where the money is held in trust until the contract between learner & provider is complete.

  3. Paul Mace

    Can’t help thinking this will all blow up in FE week’s face. This is the problem with the gutter press. You are no different. You effectively pulled a successful business without foundation. I am waiting and watching very closely what the outcome will be on this one……but not the first time is it?

  4. This is disgusting! Through all the staff and apprentices that lost their jobs and qualifications you would have hoped that such a large scale investigation with numerous pieces of evidence that they would have at least interviewed those at the top?! Sickening that they’ve now had all this time to build up their empires again and are happily directors of new businesses. I’m all for innocent until proven guilty but this is just plain wrong when so many that were involved came off way worse than the alleged perpetrators for them to have no consequences of their clear wrongdoing.

  5. As an ex 3aaa employee, and also related to a former Derbyshire Police Officer, I can say that I am not surprised. However, I also do not believe a word that this paper prints. It seems to me that there was some kind of vendetta going on. The latest that I have heard is that 3aaa may be about to be reborn, like a phoenix rising, due to no charges being brought and the investigation having found nothing. I have also heard rumours that Peter Marples will be suing FE Week, so this story has some way to run if these are true.