‘Risk averse’ colleges avoid skills bootcamps

Two-thirds haven't touched the flagship government programme yet, data suggests

Two-thirds haven't touched the flagship government programme yet, data suggests

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Complex funding models, administrative burdens, and a risk averse attitude have kept most colleges away from skills bootcamps, an FE Week investigation has found.

Data shared exclusively with this publication shows that 68 per cent of England’s FE colleges have not dipped into the flagship government programme, despite their close links with local employers arguably making them an ideal fit.

Of that 68 per cent, just 17 per cent plan to launch skills bootcamps by 2025.

The government is dishing out around £600 million to fund the programmes, designed to quickly get people into employment in skills shortage areas, both nationally and in mayoral combined authorities between 2020 and 2025. There were over 16,000 bootcamps starts in 2021-22, which rose to over 40,000 in 2022-23.

Most bootcamps are run by independent training providers. It mirrors the situation in apprenticeships where colleges deliver less than a fifth of starts annually despite repeated ministers urging them to stop letting private providers “nick your lunch” in this space since 2015.

Teresa Frith, senior skills policy manager at the Association of Colleges, which conducted the survey of members on their bootcamps involvement, told FE Week the Department for Education has showed “an eagerness for an expansion of the programme across all provider types”.

However, a different financial model, high administrative burden and scheduling uncertainties all make the policy less inviting to colleges, with many calling on the government to shake up the system.

Frith said colleges are “not risk takers” and “don’t tend to jump in with both feet” when new government programmes are rolled out.

“They’re closer to the public purse, in comparison to commercially minded organisations, and are reticent to take the same level of risk as other organisations,” she told FE Week.

“They’re looking at risk versus need for community rather than risk versus profit. If you’re looking at it from that perspective, then it’s quite a risky programme to bring it in as its brand new.”

The courses run for up to 16 weeks and are free to unemployed people, or where employed, their employer would pay a 30 per cent cash contribution.  

They are designed to offer flexible training for adults in careers in areas of national skills shortage, such as construction, manufacturing and digital. The bootcamps, based around levels 3 to 5, are also supposed to guarantee an interview with an employer.

College bosses said that while the flexibility of bootcamps can be an advantage, their design is very different to the traditional courses colleges run – many of which last for years and have a strict funding schedule.

Though Coventry College does deliver bootcamps and is set to increase its range, Gemma Knott, its vice principal for business growth, engagement and partnerships, said they are “very difficult to plan” around standard college courses.

“Traditionally, colleges’ curriculum planning process can be quite protracted and they run on a 12-month curriculum planning process,” she said – while staff are often hired to teach all year round.

When different programmes come around, finding in-demand teachers for short programmes can be trickier. On top of that, the funding is much more “reactive”, meaning that it also does not fit the general funding approach of colleges.

For Knott, that whole process is made much easier if colleges set up a standalone commercial company to deal with bootcamps.

Providers can bid for bootcamps funding through central government, or through mayoral combined authorities. The trouble is that the different contracting authorities have different contracting processes.

Emma Taylor, director of business development and major projects at Suffolk New College, argued tendering skills bootcamps to colleges via combined authorities or local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) is a better way to go – rather than tendering directly from the government.

But she also pointed to the funding model of skills bootcamps as a barrier to colleges.

Bootcamp funding is paid in three instalments: after learners have completed the first week or two of their training, after they have completed their skills bootcamp and have been offered an interview, and after they have got an outcome from their bootcamp and got a job.

That third payment can be paid up to six months after the end of the bootcamp, and is 30 per cent of the whole package.

A college leader who did not wish to be named argued that proves it is “a risk”.

“You have to put all that resource in, but what happens if there is a change with the employer, and suddenly they no longer need that staff and you invested all this money. You could be left quite exposed.”

Knott, from Coventry College, also pointed to a lack of funding to cover travel costs and DBS checks, for instance. The lack of support for those costs means that colleges often need to dip into their own pockets. Funds to cover that, she argued, could also boost uptake among colleges.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We encourage colleges to engage with local areas to prepare for skills bootcamps delivery, and we’re engaging with colleges to learn from and enhance their involvement in skills bootcamps delivery.”

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