High Court overturns ban on new starts at apprenticeship provider 

DfE delays sanctions as provider launches judicial review against Ofsted

DfE delays sanctions as provider launches judicial review against Ofsted

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An apprenticeship provider has had a government-enforced suspension on new starts lifted by the High Court while the firm battles Ofsted to overturn an ‘inadequate’ judgment.

Quest Vocational Training Ltd (QVT), which is based in Dorset, was granted the order by judge Heather Williams this month after the Department for Education imposed a ban on recruiting apprentices from June 1, 2022, following a critical report from the inspectorate.

The department, acting through the Education and Skills Funding Agency, also threatened to terminate the firm’s apprenticeship funding contract – an action that could force the company to go bust – but has agreed to hold off on this decision until QVT’s case against Ofsted has been settled.

The provider challenged the education watchdog by claiming its inspection was “procedurally flawed” after a visit in November 2021, but Ofsted rejected the complaint and published the grade four report in March. QVT alleged that the report contained factual inaccuracies along with a “disproportionate emphasis on matters which were beyond our control through the pandemic” – such as a lack of off-the-job training in the care sector.

The training firm has begun a judicial review against the report. No date has been set for the court case.

This is understood to be the first time an apprenticeship provider has successfully overturned a suspension on new starts through legal action.

Provider sues DfE

QVT was formed in 2012 to provide apprenticeships for the health and social care sector. It initially operated as a subcontractor but became a main provider in 2017 with its own direct funding contract. The provider employs more than 50 staff and was training almost 700 apprentices at the time of Ofsted’s inspection last year.

Court documents obtained by FE Week show that QVT was seeking an interim injunction against the government’s decision to suspend it from taking on new apprentices  – a sanction that has affected the provider’s “income and viability”.

QVT claimed that the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s decision to continue the suspension while it was in the process of a judicial review was unreasonable and disproportionate, claiming that the agency had also been given “sufficient evidence, independent expert evidence, and evidence from Ofsted” that demonstrated it had taken the necessary steps to address the regulator’s concerns.

The “evidence from Ofsted” referred to a follow-up monitoring visit on June 29 that found QVT to be making “reasonable progress” in all areas.

Private training providers do not typically receive follow-up visits from Ofsted after grade four reports as their funding contracts are usually swiftly terminated by the ESFA.

However, Ofsted revisited QVT after the ESFA said it would not make a decision about removing the firm from the register of apprenticeship training providers and terminating its funding until the judicial review had concluded.

On June 30, a day after Ofsted’s monitoring visit, the ESFA wrote to QVT stating it would in the meantime continue the suspension on starts.

The ESFA, in documents detailing its defence, denied that this decision was unreasonable or disproportionate and said the agency was “willing to reconsider the suspension if requested” by QVT.

The agency did not agree that the follow-up Ofsted monitoring visit showed “that the concerns had in fact been fully remedied”.

Williams signed off on a settlement agreement on September 1 which ordered QVT to withdraw its application for an interim injunction – meaning the case would not be heard in court – in exchange for the ESFA revoking the suspension on new starts.

QVT was told to provide a robust quality improvement plan that includes measurable milestones for improvement; progress reporting at monthly meetings with an ESFA team and “specific focus on the service being received by the care sector apprentice cohort that was in learning” at the time of the inspection in November 2021.

The suspension on starts and termination of contract will be subject to review after the judicial review proceedings.

QVT was attempting to argue that it could only have its funding contract terminated if it received two monitoring visit reports from Ofsted that found it to be making “insufficient progress” in at least one area.The ESFA outlined that it also has the power to remove providers from the register after an “inadequate” rating in a full inspection.

Ofsted’s allegedly ‘inaccurate and unfair’ report

Ofsted’s key complaint against QVT was that “far too many” apprentices, particularly the majority who work in adult care settings, were “not making good progress at learning enough new knowledge or participating wholeheartedly in their programmes of learning”.

Leaders were also criticised for not ensuring that all apprentices received their entitlement to off-the-job training and inspectors found that in some cases apprentices were having to complete studies in their own time, in addition to working long hours.

QVT argued that these matters were out of its control during the pandemic and it was therefore an “inaccurate and unfair reflection of the services that we provide”.

Ofsted told FE Week that it would not comment on the case but “stands by our published reports”.

QVT and the ESFA declined to comment due to the legal proceedings.

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