If there is a plan for ITPs, it isn’t working

The government needs to come clean on its strategy for the independent training sector before even more providers go under, writes Rob Foulston

The government needs to come clean on its strategy for the independent training sector before even more providers go under, writes Rob Foulston

25 Oct 2023, 8:00

”What’s Going On?” Please tell us, because independent training providers (ITPs) are running out of road, and quickly now. 

Marvin Gaye wasn’t asking this question in the context of education, but it’s a question that ITPs need answering urgently.

Our sector has lost many providers in recent months, most recently Skills Training UK and Key Training. 

Whatever the plan is or was, it is not working, and there appears to be no clear, long-term skills plan which allows for both ITPs and colleges to be funded appropriately and operate with parity of esteem. With no long-term plan, the sector defaults to short-termism, which is in nobody’s best interests.

Parity of esteem means equal priority, the context here being ITPs and colleges, not vocational versus academic qualifications. 

The government just seems to be more comfortable with colleges”

It seems the government does not treat ITPs with equal priority to colleges, despite the huge contribution ITPs make to the skills system by training two-thirds of all apprentices.

The government just seems to be more comfortable with colleges. They are in the public sector so the government can exercise more influence and control over them. 

Despite having Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) oversight and the Ofsted inspection regime for ITPs, is it this perceived lack of control over ITPs which is at the heart of the problem? Is it a lack of trust and respect for ITPs, or is it as simple as civil servants not wanting the private sector to profit at the expense of the public purse? 

We know our education secretary loves apprenticeships, but when did you last hear her publicly praising ITPs?  Colleges are lauded constantly, and rightly, but those ITPs doing an outstanding job for their learners should be too.

Let’s be clear. Just because there have been a few high-profile ITP failures in the past, those with good Ofsted grades, clean audits and strong delivery should not necessarily be tarnished as a result. The individual circumstances of each provider are different as are their reasons for success or failure.

Haven’t there also been high-profile college failures, despite the control the government has had over them? Colleges struggle too and insufficient funding is a constant lament, but they at least enjoy the government’s respect.

I chair my local college group, South Thames Colleges Group, which adds huge value to its local communities. I love my colleges, but their provision is local by design. The reality is that most colleges simply cannot do what national ITPs can do. Structurally, they do not have the operating models to run national programmes at scale for those large employers who need them, which is why ITPs account for such a large percentage of all apprenticeships (65.2 per cent in 2021/22 versus colleges with 18.7 per cent).

The IfATE funding model is broken, nothing is being done to fix it”

So parity of providers would help, but so would appropriate funding for all programmes, especially apprenticeships. 

The IfATE funding model is broken, and nothing is being done to fix it. Essential funding bands have been set at levels which are unsustainably low, in most cases at least 10 per cent too low, putting immense pressure on the system. 

As funding for apprenticeships does not cover capital costs, funding levels for capital-intensive programmes like the heavy vehicle service and maintenance technician apprenticeship don’t come close to covering the real delivery costs. 

Of course, when ITPs (and colleges) fail, learners do not get to complete their programmes. When this is due to DfE not funding apprenticeships with the real cost of delivery and a provider, or college, goes under, why should apprentices pay the price?  If the figures in the public domain are true and the Treasury really did divert over £500m of levy funding away from apprenticeships last year alone, how is this justifiable when there are apprentices unable to complete?

So, what is the government’s skills plan? What’s the funding plan? What’s the strategy? Tell us please, “so we can see, what’s going on”. 

If the government wants to continue with a model which includes ITPs, it must ensure they are funded properly and they feel they are wanted. ITPs know they’re needed, but allowing one after another to hit the wall, with little or no support, sends both them and their apprentices a very worrying message. 

Finally, as an owner of an ITP, Remit Training, which is a national, ‘outstanding’ provider, I need to know where ITPs stand in the medium to long-term skills plan. 

If the government want ITPs, like Remit, to still be here in a few years’ time, then support us by ensuring the funding bands applicable to our programmes cover our costs. 

I call on the secretary of state to hold a high-level round table with AELP, the major ITPs, and IfATE to help resolve the current threats to the sustainability of ITPs, the apprenticeship brand, all our apprentices and the skills system.

“Don’t punish us with brutality” as Marvin’s song goes, but at least fund us properly, please.

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  1. Years of austerity primed publicly funded organisations to be defensive, to emphasise efficiency and value for money. So when asked about the cost of delivery it was conflated with value for money.

    Class sizes are a classic example, 15 might start, but we know 15 won’t end. If you divide the cost by the starts instead of an average across the duration, the costs per start are very different.

    That was an easy one for the designers of the funding model to leverage ‘funding band efficiencies’.

    A really simple indictor to gauge whether it all adds up is: when did you last hear an Government body last talk about ‘affordability’, ‘quality’ and ‘capacity’ at the same time?

  2. Rob green

    It is interesting about parity in reality it is simply a false comparison. Colleges are fundamentally different for two reasons:
    Breadth of what they do will normally be greater than a provider of apprenticeships.
    The second is something private providers shy away from they are there to make a profit for their owners there is nothing wrong with that but it is a fact. Those funds must inevitably leak from the skills system as there is no requirement for the ultimate reinvestment of that money. The owner can spend the profit on whatever they desire.

    Sure there will be exceptions but colleges are not designed to make private profits whereas ITPs are.

    The difference in the end is that the assets and liabilities of colleges ultimately rest with state.

    It is in reality an exercise of some futility to try and make such comparisons.

    The issue of sound funding is a different matter and one where the should a common cause. Mark Dawe’s recent article was interesting insight in that in reality much of the skills policy is heading in the wrong direction.
    Narrowing options for young people, a system incentivising gaming eg levy funding and initiative fatigue with a shiny new initiative more important than whether it makes any sense.

    Much of the problem lies in those implementing policy who have no real world understanding. These are things to look at not trying to compare an apple and an orange.

    • Whilst you probably don’t want to hear this as it presumably doesn’t fit your zeitgeist, there are many ITPs that do not make a profit for their owners. The ITP I work for, like many other GTA type ITPs, is employer led and any surplus goes back into the business. Our salary rates are also generally lower than those for colleges, as demonstrated by the previous FE workforce survey data. It is frustrating and tiresome that the tired old trope that ‘private providers are all just in it for the money, whilst colleges are all saintly public organisations working for the public good’ keeps getting rolled out.

  3. Tony Allen

    There is no plan. Neither is their any understanding or appreciation of the part ITPs play.
    I recently conducted some research amongst MPs. Out of 27, only 2 understood that ITPs played a leading role in apprenticeship provision. The other 25 thought that colleges were responsible for majority of apprenticeship delivery.
    Furthermore, there is still the ‘profit phobia’ dominant in the Department. A lack of understanding of business, coupled with a fear of large or fast growing providers. This is best portrayed in the instruction I was given when I accompanying the then Skills Minister, a certain Matt Hancock, on a visit to an ITP.
    “Make sure he doesn’t see the Aston Martin”.
    This, more than anything sums up the Department’s view of ITPs. They all make large profits, and therefore we don’t need to increase funding bands.

  4. This is clearly a concern to all ITP’s & I find myself tentatively logging on to F.E. Week for fear of seeing another closer reported on. Our sector is the unsung mainstay of apprenticeship delivery & although we’ve witnessed closures through poor inspection results we’re also seeing ITP’s close because their money has run out.
    Colleges are quite rightly financially supported when things go wrong for them regardless of inspection grade & the DfE should consider financial support for struggling good ITP’s with an expectation of & timeline for repayment. This would provide a level of confidence in the sector & stability for apprentices & learners.