Apprenticeship chiefs have lashed out over the government’s “ludicrous” hunt to appoint “expert” training providers, after FE Week analysis revealed only six per cent are eligible to apply.
DfE is searching for 15 providers to take on a “mark of excellence”, which will give those selected “more access” to DfE systems in a bid to reduce the time, resource and cost that providers commit to coaching non-levy paying employers through the digital apprenticeship system.
But, leaders have criticised the extreme criteria they need to meet to apply, as well as the “dangerous” title of “expert” providers.
To be considered, providers must have a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating, an apprenticeship achievement rate of at least 51 per cent in 2021/22, as well as a four-star employer feedback rating.
It also requires providers to deliver at least 30 per cent (and a minimum of 50 annual starts) of its overall apprenticeships provision to small and medium-sized employers (SMEs) and have been providing apprenticeships for at least five years.
This criterion has eliminated most of the 1,420 apprenticeship providers in England from participating, including some of the largest, such as Lifetime Training, Kaplan Financial, BPP Professional and JTL.
Just 90 providers tick all the above conditions, comprising 71 independent training providers and 17 FE colleges. Just one higher education institution makes the cut, despite DfE plans to make three of the 15 “expert” providers HEIs.
The pool may be even smaller as the guidance states providers must also be in “good” financial health and must not have been sanctioned by the DfE following an audit or investigation in the past five years – requirements that FE Week could not analyse.
One leading provider, which did not want to be named, said: “The word ‘simplicity’ simply doesn’t exist in the DfE’s dictionary.
“The stipulation of being judged Ofsted good or better should be sufficient. Instead, the department is also asking interested providers if they have four out of four stars for employer feedback which will result in perfectly good candidates being eliminated at the first hurdle. Ludicrous.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “This small pilot is deliberately targeted at training providers with a track record of delivering high-quality apprenticeships.
“By enabling expert providers to act on behalf of SME employers, time and resources will be saved, SMEs will be better supported to deliver their apprenticeships, and the system will become more efficient.
“We will use the learnings from the pilot to develop and implement a wider expert provider status from August 2024.”
One of the largest providers of SME apprenticeships, HIT Training, is ineligible for the pilot as it had a 36.1 per cent achievement rate, according to 2021/22 performance tables. But, managing director Jill Whittaker said she “absolutely will be applying”.
She told FE Week: “Our current achievement rates have significantly improved since 2021/22, we’re over 51 per cent this year.
“Given that HIT is one of the largest providers that work with SMEs, we have been a good provider for 17 years and we have excellent feedback as rated by employers, to exclude us because of achievement rates from a year ago would be quite ridiculous and foolish.”
The DfE’s guidance does say the pilot is designed to be a “light-touch process”, but it makes clear providers “must be able to respond positively” to all the listed criteria.
‘We suggested they think about a better phrase’
Several providers have criticised the title of “expert” for the scheme.
Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said he advised DfE to change the name. “[We] suggested they think about a better phrase because this pilot is really about expertise in administration rather than expertise in delivery.”
Another boss of a large provider excluded from the pilot said: “I’m not sure I agree with the ‘expert’ title, it’s more an advisory panel. It’s very dangerous using the term if down the line the provider runs into trouble with Ofsted, for example.”
Whittaker added: “It’s a bit of a cheeky name because it implies if you’re not on the list you’re not an expert. That is a bit of a worry.”
Another provider boss said: “The conferring of a ‘quality mark’ on these expert providers would be wholly inappropriate if such a kitemark and new group were not also established for providers more focused on the levy-paying market.”
The guidance outlines that providers’ expert status will be revoked if they receive any downgrades in Ofsted ratings, the emergence of a safeguarding issue, the termination of an apprenticeship contract, or if they become the subject of a DfE investigation.
DfE is looking to fill seven of the 15 slots with independent training providers, appoint five places to FE colleges and three to higher education providers to “be reflective of current market share”.
The guidance document stressed that the pilot will not include any further funding, but successful providers could see a growth in starts and cost efficiencies from being involved.
Chosen providers will also get “priority engagement opportunities” with DfE officials through workshops and roundtables.
Association of Employment and Learning Provider director of strategy Paul Warner said the membership body has been “working closely” with the DfE on this new expert apprenticeship pilot programme which has the “potential to be a real step forward”.
He added that the focus on improving efficiency and simplification is “obviously good” but there are a “couple of areas we will need to keep an eye on including the new ‘quality mark’ or if these criteria start to be used in procurements processes”.
The pilot programme is planned to start from October 31 this year. DfE needs responses by September 27 and applicants will be told if they are successful or not from October 16. There will be no route to appeal.