Exclusive: SFA ‘should scrap’ funding data deadline

More than four in every five FE data staff believe the funding data return for the 2013/14 academic year due this week should be abandoned after delays hit the Skills Funding Agency funding software, an exclusive FE poll has suggested.

No fewer than 165 data staff of the 200 who answered the survey said the return (known as R03) should be scrapped, while 135 (68 per cent) feared their data would not be error-free in time for Wednesday’s 6pm deadline.

The FE Week survey was posted on the information authority Feconnect forum as well as and the CMIS-Network, a Jiscmail email discussion group, this morning and attracted 200 responses in a just a few hours.

Providers have been left with just eight working days to install and remedy any errors after delays in supplying the new funding information system (Fis) software.

Yet almost half (42 per cent) of data management staff said their organisation had so far failed to even install the Fis software, with the figure rising to 85 per cent for local authorities (29 out of 34 survey respondents).

The new internet-based Fis is part of a wider agency data collections and funding transformation programme (DCFT), which has been developed to comply with the Cabinet Office’s new digital strategy, which includes using a range of both large and small software development companies.

An agency spokesperson said: “We expect to deliver significant benefits from the delivery of the DCFT through the use of our current supply chain and small and medium sized enterprises in full alignment with the Cabinet Office guidelines.

“However, this complex programme has had some difficulties in implementation and we are sorry that this has resulted in frustration and concern for many colleges and other providers. We are committed to ensuring all providers can make accurate data returns, recognising that key funding and allocations calculations are based on them.”

But responses to the survey have suggested the installation problem relates to firewalls that providers use to protect against malicious cyber-attacks — Fis draws down information from the internet continuously, but would be blocked, and unable to function with a firewall.

As part of the DCFT, providers have also been waiting for a learning aims reference system (Lars) with qualification funding values, but the agency spokesperson said it was still “in development” and would not comment on when it would be ready.

However, she added: “All of the reference data that would have been viewed through Lars is available now in Fis and through the Fis export database.”

Meanwhile, following related letters of complaint to the agency from the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group, Junior Shadow Education Minister Rushanara Ali has now written to Skills Minister Matthew Hancock branding the software delays “excessive” and “unacceptable”.

She wrote: “While this software change has been planned for two years, the delays are excessive and the danger now is that enrolments will not be calculated properly and funding lost for FE colleges.”

She demanded Mr Hancock explained what measures he intended “to take in order to see off any resultant disruption for the FE sector and their funding streams”.

She added: “I would also ask you provide an explanation as to why this software change, now two years in the making, has produced such unacceptable delays.”

The agency has now set up a dedicated ‘payments and data’ page on its website — http://tinyurl.com/pm7z6h5 — to provide updates on the situation.

The website says the agency “recognises the technical issues related to the new data collections system mean some of you have found it difficult to calculate your current funding position,” but that “payments will continue to be made and are not affected by these technical issues”.


Editorial : Funding system says no

Our survey, and the comments posted online, should leave the Skills Funding Agency and Skills Minister Matthew Hancock in no doubt as to the seriousness of their replacement software problem.

Colleges and other providers have been put in a position, through no fault of their own, where it seems many will fail to submit valid data for the first quarter of 2013/14.

And that could happen even if they manage to resolve firewall issues and successfully install the funding software given how little time there is before deadline to correct potentially tens of thousands of errors.

But the submission deadline, however frustrating for data staff, is a sideshow.

Fis and Lars may be new silly names, and they may have been in development for two years, but they are not new tools.

The real scandal is that providers have not been able to revert back to the 2012/13 version of the funding software (Lis), which ironically included 2013/14 ‘shadow funding’ reports.

And while the agency is no longer willing to say when Lars for 2013/14 will be available, its predecessor for 2012/13 (Lara) remains languishing online and unloved.

Surely the agency knew of the complexity associated with implementing the Cabinet Office digital strategy requirements at the same time as new funding systems for both young people and adults?

Nick Linford, editor

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  1. If this return is abandoned then how will the data service be able to properly test its systems for R04 (December)? I understand they should be able to test but the reality is they are not capable.

    The issues have also highlight the educational sector has poor IT investment and/or flexibility generally. The disparity of which areas have managed to install FIS.

    I’d also be interested to see how much has been spent on this software.

  2. The real issue here is not just the lack of data but the position it puts all primes and sub contractors financially. Whilst primes are being paid on profile, no body knows how they are doing so the sfa will be faced with many examples of overpayments which need recovery – it is a hope that the primes haven’t spent the money in these difficult times.It is even worse if you are overperforming as you simply don’t get paid.

    The same applies to sub contractors where the situation is even more acute, as they generally are paid in arrears – many weeks after the expenditure has been incurred – we were many hundreds of thousands down this month on cash received from primes nervous about releasing money without the data – can you blame them – but where does it leave the sub contractor ?

    How can anyone run a business with no visibility of their order book and sales ledger – it is an awful position for everyone to be in, wholly caused by the SFA and others.

    The sector needs an urgent position statement on what is to be done today !

    Peter Marples

  3. This is simply a case of the SFA IT department not being good enough and it is no more complicated than that. They designed something that was really, really complex (at least according to my IT technicians and those of others I have spoken to) and could not deliver it. It looks like someone sat in an ivory tower and designed something without even thinking about how it would work in the real world. That is just unforgivable but I am sure the SFA will just gloss over that and blame their suppliers rather than look internally.

    Was the previous set of systems really that bad? They weren’t perfect but they did work. How much has it cost to fail to replace them? Does it seem like such a good deal now?

    Hancock needs to ask some serious questions before his shadow counterpart does.

  4. Steve Lawrence

    In terms of this it is going back to the dark days of the TEC, LSC and indeed it is just crazy so much technical knowledge but could not make a cup of Tea as someone said to me the other day.
    Peter has hit the NAIL on the head.
    It reminds me of the song dancing in the dark

  5. Dan, not to dramatically leap to the SFA’s defence or anything, but yes the old systems were that bad. Maybe not for us as users but in the centre a *lot* of money was being spent each year rolling over systems that had dates hard-coded into them and which were based on obsolete technologies, so this definitely needed to happen.
    Whether this was the right time (and there’s never really a right time) is another discussion and certainly questions need to be asked about how and when this project failed. SFA might blame the suppliers (large and small, no doubt), but it’s their project and they should have been on top of it.

    • Steve, I know what you mean and OLDC et al were far from perfect. I sat through the briefings so know rolling over the systems was expensive but has this project really provided value for money? I bet this has cost several times what it was expected to and so it might take many years to recoup the cost and that is just from the centre perspective. Factor in the costs (and pain) of the providers and it doesn’t seem a smart investment. There must have been an easier way to upgrade the existing systems than this lock-stock rebuild. I would love to see the original business case revised with the actual build costs!

      I have been told SFA designed this and just asked their suppliers to build it. I will leave that to my more technical colleagues to comment on whether it was a good design badly built or a bad design doomed to fail.

      • I’m sure will see the final SFA costs at some point (and *surely* they must have put huge penalty clauses in, right? right?), but yes totally agree about the cost to the wider sector. 20-30 hours per provider minimum times, what, £15 per hour, on average for a skilled IT/MIS bod. that’s a lot of money across the country…

  6. Country Bumpkin

    Ben, I think the disparity you suggest about who can install this software shouldn’t really be taken at face value by making a sweeping statements about poor IT investment. Local authorities have been hit hard by this and it’s reflected in the 85% reoporting they haven’t been able to install FIS. Amongst other things Local authorities tend to have smaller SFA allocations than colleges (economies of scale), don’t have access to ‘non business critical’ machines & many operate under outsourced IT contracts which tends to complicate & delay installation. (ours have quoted a 4 figure sum for a windows 7 build and installation (for free software!)).
    If the way that SFA has communciated with the sector over this has any bearing on how they run their projects, then it was doomed to fail anyway.
    On a lighter note: If anyone still has room for ironic comedy – please see the todays FEconnect blog (http://forums.theia.org.uk/the-information-authority-blog/hello-ive-just-got-to-let-you-know/). Everything appears to be fine from reading that so please relax. They also think it appropriate at this time to have a little section about the weather to make us all feel better. Gotta be a joke in there somewhere (storms, teacups etc).

  7. James Smith

    Saying LARS is available is a joke, half of the data is incorrect or outright missing including funding values for apprenticeship loans. We also haven’t been supplied with any lookup tables just the very core tables.

    Typical spin with no facing up to reality, for all intents and purposes i.e. generating appropriate learner funding and learner numbers FIS and LARS are not available.