Call for re-evaluation of apprenticeships following Panorama programme

Image: Apprenticeships England founders Lindsay McCurdy (left) and Peter Cobrin (right) read FE Week

The largest independent group of people engaged in apprenticeships has called for a “root and branch re-evaluation” into how apprenticeships are regulated and administered by government.

A statement by Apprenticeships England, a movement with more than 5,000 members which originated on the social networking site LinkedIn, says: “It is far too easy for cowboy operations to flourish under this regime, often with the active connivance or at best the turning of a blind eye by ‘reputable’ institutions including some colleges.

“We call for a root and branch re-evaluation of the way apprenticeships are regulated and administered.”

The statement, issued by group founders Peter Cobrin and Lindsay McCurdy this morning, criticises the government’s management of the apprenticeship programme following the Panorama show “The Great Apprenticeship Scandal”.

“The current apprenticeship programme has been tarnished/damaged by confusion over policy, definition and administration from Government,” the statement reads.

“This was directly responsible for two of the items featured on Panorama last night – the Zenos training programme which only now does John Hayes disown as “not an apprenticeship”, and concerns over “excessive profits” made by some training providers thanks to a payment regime designed, implemented and administered by government and its agencies, the Skills Funding Agency and National Apprenticeship Service.”

The joint response later says the monitoring of training providers is “unfit for purpose” and also erratically administered, leading to a lack of confidence from within the further education sector.

The real question is what will the government do next, if anything.

The Panorama programme, which was broadcast on BBC One last night, interviewed a number of young people which had been let down by poor quality vocational training.

Kyle Emery, who enrolled on a painting and decorating apprenticeship delivered by Forward Thinking Training Solutions, said the scheme had virtually no training and was ultimately a vehicle for cheap labour.

“All it was, was here’s some paint and here’s a brush, crack on and don’t make a mess,” he said.

Other private training providers including Zenos and Elmfield Training were questioned by reporter Shelley Jofre for delivering apprenticeships within a short time frame or with large profit margins.

Mr Cobrin told FE Week however he believes the Panorama programme will have “little impact” because it focuses too heavily on historical case studies.

“There wasn’t any shock or scandal,” Mr Cobrin said.

“Everything they revealed, we knew about. The colleges turning a blind eye, the training providers milking the system, it was nothing new.”

He added: “The real question is what will the government do next, if anything.”

The Panorama programme featured the relationship between Morrisons supermarket, which has enrolled 40 per cent of its workforce on an apprenticeship, with the private training provider Elmfield Training.

The show highlighted how Gerard Syddall, company director and 95 per cent shareholder of Elmfield Training, used pre-tax profits of more than £12 million in the financial year ending September 2010 to pay himself dividends of almost £3 million.

Neil Lakeland, marketing manager at Hadlow College, tweeted: “Can’t believe the CEO of Elmfield Training got a £3m bonus for a Grade 3 satisfactory. Who needs bankers! #bbcpanorama”

Mr Syddall is said to be one of the speakers at the “Making Apprenticeships Work Even Better” conference, organised by Apprenticeships England and to be chaired by Nick Linford, managing editor of FE Week, in Leeds on July 7.

It follows a successful first conference, entitled “Making Apprenticeships Work”, held by the group in March.

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    • Stella Hammond

      As you quite rightly say – those of us at the sharp end all knew, that’s what’s so annoying. I reported Forward Thinking Training Solutions to NAS and the SFA this time last year for a similar scam that involved envelope stuffing resulting in a customer service apprenticeship!

  1. I agree – those ‘in the know’ couldn’t have been surprised by the programme. John Hayes confirms that the abuse by Zenos Training of a system (devised in good faith) is “not an apprenticeship”. Ha! And all us providers who can’t find enough hours in the day to do things ‘by the book’ are tarnished with the same brush. The NAS has a lot to answer for, as has the SFA. Am I proud to be a provider? Recently I feel I am perceived by the public similarly to estate agents and bankers! (No offense intended to estate agents and bankers!)

  2. Mick Fletcher

    Agree. What the programme shows is that it is very difficult to deliver public services through setting up a quasi-market which is manipulated by central agencies to meet government targets. What government wants is a market which it is easy for new providers to enter; a light touch regulatory regime and quality output. Experience shows that they can have any two but not all three.

  3. Lisa MacCormac

    All of the above agreed. However, the Panorama programme was not entirely balanced. Whilst it is absolutely right and proper that the public be aware of where their(our)money is going, the question over whether that money should go towards upskilling adult learners (19+ and 25+)at, in this instance, Morrisons, should have been countered with the fact that the organisation would be contributing at least 50% (and probably closer to 75%) of the funding for this age range themselves. It is really vital that the public are aware that the vast majority of apprenticeship training providers do deliver high quality and worthwhile training and, like any initiative which involves large amounts of funding, there are always a minority who will exploit this.

    • Mick Fletcher

      Isn’t part of the problem that many big firms are NOT contributing 50% or even 25%. Providers who seek to get employer contributions often find themselves undercut by those offering free provision. In order to make any money when not collecting the employer contribution these providers then have to cut corners, reduce their input etc.

      • Lisa MacCormac

        Yes, this is absolutely true and something which I feel NAS should be regulating. However, in this instance, we do know that Morrisons are making the contribution.

  4. lindsay Mccurdy

    The problem is not the training providers mentioned in the programme zenos and elmfield,they have worked alongside NAS and SFA from the start and the apprenticeships qualifications being delivered were endorsed by NAS and the SFA. If NAs and SFA are not happy with this delivery why was it not sorted out from conception of talks about delivering these apprenticeships, Iam sure there were talks or should have been when such large sums of public money were involved, was it to drive up apprenticeships numbers, instead of working on quality and delivery of service. The college mentioned last night did it carry out due-diligence on the company mentioned if not how can they justify their managament fee?, A programme should be done on NAS and SFA, could this be the reason the heads of the two services left on the same day as this programme has been in the making since last October. we have 5000 members on apprenticeships England, who work hard day in day out to deliver quality apprenticeships, they work with young people who for many this is the only route into work. It is time that the two organisations involved take a hard look at their respective houses as the two organisations mentioned are causing the damage to the brand of apprenticeships.

    • Steve D

      Having work in the FE sector delivering MA’s for a local college, I can say that this; as quoted, has been going on for some time. I and quite a few of my colleagues left to work in the private sector due to being instructed by senior managers (most with little experience of what the sector wants or expects)to deliver qualifications in 12 to 16 weeks or face the prospect of being placed under performance review. Little wonder that the perception of FE delivery is going swiftly down the pan! Those FE lecturers with principles involved in this Apprenticeship farce got out and found worthwhile jobs. All that said, there are still plenty of briliant FE lecturers working in and around the periphery of the delivery of MA’s, many of those I am proud to call friends. They choose to fight from within, hoping to change the system, restore its integrity often with little or no help from senior managers, college principals, etc. In my own case these “professionals” were little more than “yes” men or “hatchet weilders.”
      Your statement that, “for many this is the only route into work,” sends out a mixed message. An apprentice should already be employed, have a titled job, all that remains is the training to be able to do that job at the requisite skill level. Many of these youngsters are perceptive enough to see, very quickly, that in some instances there is no interest in them, their future, their training or their welfare. In lots of cases it is just about arses on seats and pounds in pockets. Give kids some credit they can tell when they are being ripped off!!!

  5. Did i miss it but where at any stage in the programme did it show evidence that colleges were turning a blind eye to the situation? The programme stated that the college confirmed that due diligence was undertaken in accordance with guidelines and indeed the other 3 colleges that were mentioned but not named presumably did likewise.Why was it that Bournville was the only college named anyway? The college appeared to have terminated the contract when they failed to deliver and the company went into adminstration last year. In the circumstances arguably an appropriate response!.The headline grabbing response now in FE Week is dissappointing.On a lighter note Perhaps FE Week should now start publishing on a Sunday and rename itself News of the FE World !!. Apparantly Elvis was spotted in a West Midlands college last week!

    • HI,it Looks like you work at Bournville college,yes they should have mentioned all colleges.My personal Opinion about bournville and feelings that they will take anybody in just to pocket the money.What a shame this country is gone to the dogs.NEIL WAKE UP MATE.

  6. Let me in please

    I really hope NAS and SFA are taking a good look at JML Dolman. They may not be the ‘largest’ provider discussed in the programme, but the college that subcontracts to them has a lot to answer for (and let’s face it, now the subcontractor register has been published it’s easy to find out which one it is).

    It’s no surprise that success rates for apprenticeships have increased over the last few years – it’s a doddle to achieve them when so many learners are on very short programmes and are in relatively secure employment (Morrisons for eg) or on PLA type programmes (Zenos and JML for eg). It would be interesting to see what the national averages would be if these short apprenticeship success rates were removed from the calculations. Those of us who work to a 12 month to 3 or 4 year framework delivery period anyway would then have a better idea of how we compare to our peers.

    • Not to be told

      I hope they get investigated too. I used to work for them, and they once told me to forge documents. I said to them i wouldn’t be apart of it, that’s when they turned nasty. If they don’t get their way, they either terminate your employment contract, or you leave due to the peer pressure they put on you to make you leave.

      They deserve everything they get, and should NEVER be allowed to own a company again.

  7. Ray McGurn

    Panorama highlighted the inherent greed in mankind. Colleges need to continue using delivery partners but must increase the level of control they have over that delivery. Delivery partners should work under the college’s accreditations and delivery/evidence models. All IQA functions should be maintained by the college as the prime contractor. Regular unannounced monitoring visits should be imposed to ensure compliance. If colleges did not take unachievable volume contracts from the SFA & NAS, the emphasis could be placed on quality of the learner experience and not all NUMBERS NUMBERS NUMBERS.

  8. I am sorry but Mr Linford is doing no favours to the sector.

    He misses the point that the big issues are not with sub contracting but those contracts under the direct control of the SFA / NAS. Fe week has been very quiet about Zenos, (maybe because they sponsor and provide much needed advertising and support to FE week – allegedly via Pearson ).

    Colleges are controlling sub contracting in the main very well and all of the big issues have been around direct contracts, starting with Carter and Carter, A4E, Inbiz, zenos, elmfield and others – may be this would be a sound basis to start a debate. But this may not suit the agenda of FE week (but who knows what their agenda is). When the LSC/ SFA / NAS want growth, control was not a priority and we now have everyone in retreat. This has gone on for many years, and comes down to the competence of those who are supposed to be contract managing these providers. If you give a £45m contract to a provider, you need competent and experienced people to manage it !

    The biggest scandal in all of this, which FE fail to ignore is Panarama confirmed what everyone has known. Zenos recruited 2000 (allegedly) apprentices in September 2011 and only 1000 of them have a job (or was it placement). My arithmetic says £10m of funding which is ineligible. Where is the clawback of funding ?? – I look forward to seeing the article next week calling for such an inquiry !!

    And finally, should we ask Mr linford to produce his P&L account and see if he is getting a return for the effort he is putting in. I am sure he made an entrepreneurial decision to venture into his new environment and will expect a return. Any doesn’t FE money come directly from the public purse – or is it different for him

    • Let me in please

      I agree with most of what you say Dave; however there are other examples of subcontracting arrangements which have gone wrong and have involved substantial sums of money – Luis Michael for example. I’m a strong defender of partnership activity in the FE sector – partners often bring sector expertise, networks, contacts and better success rates to the table. The consequence of the bad press is that all providers in the future will pay the price – 12 month minimum apprenticeship programmes for all age ranges, inflated success rates as benchmarks and increases in delivery costs. And all of this just so Govt can ‘show’ the apprenticeship brand is delivering outcomes.

  9. Mark C

    If Zenos learning was judged by Ofsted to be ‘Outstanding’, but due to the simulated nature of the learning rather than employed positions, did not constitute an Apprenticeship, why weren’t options to look at funding through other FE streams explored?

  10. WeAreAllDoomed

    This is now getting bizarre-we have a story featuring a social networking group’s ‘founders’ calling for re-evaluation of apprenticeships (while FE Week virtually ignored Hoyle’s very considered calls for a redefinition of what an apprenticeship is some weeks ago), the same founder accusing a college of not performing due diligence without foundation and assuming the management fee is spurious, and then Nick calls foul for someone mentioning him and his paper!
    Due diligence does take place, and the need for subcontractors to be registered on BRAVO also helps to a degree. Minimum lengths for apprenticeships won’t help (and is it me but didn’t it already exist in SASE via the minimum GLH?) and will simply see some apps artificially stretched, and others underfunded.
    Nick, you reap what you sow-this is what being a journo is like, especially if you continue to report somewhat partially, and judge some events more importantly than others e.g. this ‘story’ re Apprenticeships England.
    Can we have your reaction to Dave’s comments re Pearsons incidentally?

  11. Peter Cobrin

    I respect postings are under a real name, so why hide one’s identity? I am happy to be judged for my comments and take responsibility for my occasional rants. I also see little value, other than maybe exposing one’s prejudices in crudely attacking the messenger rather than the message. Many of the changes in policy are a direct result of articles in FE Week sourced from Apprenticeship England members. And if Dave thinks Zenos is the really big scandal, he’s a little naive. To repeat what I’ve said elsewhere, the regime under which they operated, and sought to make a legal profit (just like Elmfield), was created, administered and regulated by Government. If you don’t like what they do, phone up the SFA or NAS and ask them how they can justify their salaries and index linked pensions with this track record?

  12. Peter
    That is exactly what i have said. Competent contract management. nor am i saying elmfield and zenos have not played by the rules. However, it looks like zenos havent since the introduction of sase and from september 2011 so why havent fe week made any fuss about this ? – just interesting – so lets change our name and it all goes away – or should it ?- lets employ 2000 learners through our holding company, call it an authorised ata ( was it ?) put them on a full time programme for 18 weeks and then seek a ( placement) whilst our holding company continues to pay them. We call that a job and claim potentially £20m of funding. Why hasnt nick got his teeth into this ?

    Nick shows in my view his own propensity for self publicity – be careful mr linford, you know what happened to ms harrison and others.

    We now have a one size fits all market for every learner – irrespective of ability – that is no more correct than shortened apprenticeships for everyone.

    Fe week has alot account for and time well tell if they have served the sector well- i will watch with interest

  13. Scott Upton

    I think most of us aren’t actually that far apart on the nature of the issues, which I think can be crystallised as shoddy (or none existent)risk management in a number of cases. I don’t think there is enough solid evidence to conclusively say if it is restricted to a few or to many cases.

    In the cases in question:

    NAS / SFA abdicated a huge amount of responsibility for quality to ‘Primes’ (I hate that word)who then failed to manage sub-contracts properly

    For larger, direct contracts NAS / SFA failed to risk manage new entrant providers who went from ‘zero to hero’ in a couple of years pulling down millions in funding.

    Predictable knee jerk reactions then enforce 12 mth minimum stays.

    For what it’s worth, I think that all 16-24 apprenticeships should be fully funded and that 19-24 apprenticeships only need a 6 mth minimum stay. I would ban 25+ apprentices and meet that need through ER Other (a.k.a Son of Train to Gain).

    There is a huge and unrecognised amount of fantastic apprenticeship provision out there, but I don’t see why we need to argue about exposing the poor stuff, let’s get rid of it and move on. That goes for colleges as well as independents.

    Dave – I take it you didn’t approve of my T-shirt then!

    Scott Upton, Sandwell College.



  15. Peter Cobrin

    We called for a “root and branch re-evaluation into how apprenticeships are regulated and administered”, NOT a redefinition of what is an apprenticeship which Graham (and others including us) have long called for. We did not accuse “a college of not performing due diligence” without foundation. The Panorama programme and the earlier Radio 5 Live programme did a more than adequate job of laying that foundation.

    As for the commercial relationship between advertisers/sponsors and the published media, what’s new here? All that we need to know is that the former cannot influence the latter and FE Week has published stories on several issues that their advertisers might not like. They’ve even published unflattering photographs of us!!!

    And just for the record, the quotation marks around founders is quite irrelevant.

  16. Sandyb

    I draw everyone’s attention back to what Lisa MacCormac and Lindsay McCurdy said earlier.
    I work for a small training provider in Hampshire and we work dam hard with our apprentices in a workplace as well as the FL programme. We cover all hours to suit the needs of our employers and abide by the ‘rules’ laid down within our contracts. We believe in quality not quantity, perhaps that is why we are not a huge company, we are there for the learner, which I have not heard anyone mention!

  17. longterminmate

    Sandyb is representative of the wide variety of us who work in FE FOR THE BENEFIT OF LEARNERS rather than to line our own pockets. I have the questionable benefit of 25 years experience of working in this sector.So this means I have seen good and not so good. I represent a large adult and community learning provider whose provision has been judged as good with outstanding elements in a recent OFSTED inspection. I have recently been researching the outsourcing of some of our provision and as part of due diligence policy, did a little ‘mystery shopping’! I was appalled at the responses I received from some smaller local private providers offering apprenticeships some of whom were crowing on their websites about the millions they have been awarded from SFA for delivering these. When I asked about qualifications of staff they employed to complete necessary basic skills assessments, two of them were completely flummoxed and did not seem to know what I was talking about! Quote ‘ err, I will get someone to get back to you on that…….’ no one did! We are carrying out due dilligence, over and above what would usually be expected.
    SFA systems need a complete overhaul and review. There have been too many scandals recently regarding private providers winning huge contracts and not delivering what they are contractually obliged to do, but, hey, is there any clawback for this? I am disgusted at the way our young people are being treated and and I can honestly say that this debacle makes me ashamed to be associated with FE altogether. If I could afford it, I would retire – but as someone said – if you want to change a system, you have to be in it! So a few more years for me I think……

  18. It’s a shame that these issues are only being dealt/talked/publicized with now. Zenos has been practicing for several years with false pretenses and generally lying about what they can offer you.

    I took a Zenos course two years ago under the advertisement that you are partaking in an apprenticeship. Not once was we offered any sort of work through the six month program. It was all classroom based, reading from books and completing assignments. The gap that is hardest to fill when finding work (experience) is still wide open and nothing is really done to help change that.

    As well as this some of the training subjects and outcomes were greatly misleading. I remember seeing a poster claiming that the course would lead you into various roles straight afterwards, including graphic design, web design, networking and engineers… The catch? Nothing regarding those subjects was taught so finding work in any of those fields is impossible.

    I hope this program will be noticed and measures are taken to stop people having a similar experience to what the guys in the TV program and myself have had.

  19. longterminmate

    What is required is a public enquiry into the whole system of awarding contracts. At the end of the day it is we as tax payers, who are expected to fund organisations such as these, who make enormous profits whilst not delivering the goods. In the public sector this would be flagged up as unsustainable, but I am given to wonder why the same scrutiny is not afforded to the private and third sector organisations.

  20. Jason

    The sad part of all these discussions, the movement (Apprenticeship England Linkedin) is now including the apprentice in their argument against the government apprenticeship, NAS and the SFA. I work hard with apprentices and employers who engage, the challenges everyone faces should not effect the learner, nor the employer and this is the very reason I no longer want to be part of a group who says they are their for the apprentice, as far as I am concerned the learner does not or should be involved…

  21. Rockhound

    I must say that calling the Apprenticeship England Linkedin Group the voice of the sector is a bit far fetched. Ok it might have 5,000 members through constant unsolicidated requests (I know this because I got one as did all my collegues on Linkedin), but it only seems to be a hardcore of about 10 who contribute and are outspoken. Wake up and smell the coffee.