Ben Rowland

Chief executive, Association of Employment and Learning Providers

Membership subs can’t be unconditional. Someone has to earn it

Ben Rowland has just finished his first week as chief executive of the Association for Employment and Learning Providers. He tells Shane Chowen about his plans to rebuild membership following a turbulent period and get decision-makers face-to-face with private providers


As a child, Ben Rowland remembers one Christmas day when his mother invited three people who had nowhere else to go to his west London home for dinner. Growing up in a church-going household, he credits his “socially aware” mother fondly with early formative memories of helping those in need that would shape his professional interests later in life. Of course, he wasn’t to know that at the time.

It is a journey that would see him ride the, in his words, “conveyor belt from a posh school to posh universities, no credit to me” and ultimately end up this week taking over as chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). 

The “posh school” was the London independent boys’ school St Paul’s, and the “posh universities” were Oxford, where Rowland studied Latin and Greek at the “quite left-wing” Balliol College, and London School of Economics, where he completed a social policy masters degree.

He now leads one of the primary lobbying organisations in the sector, going into a general election year where the stakes for his members could not be higher.

AELP is best known for standing up for private-sector training organisations operating in publicly funded apprenticeships, adult education and other skills programmes. But among their members are also universities, employer providers and FE colleges. 

While apprenticeships are enjoying their time in the political spotlight, the same cannot be said for the organisations that deliver the training for the vast majority of them – independent training providers (ITPs), who struggle for visibility in the busy education lobby.

Rowland is hitting the ground running, with a national tour to entice back training providers that he says “can’t quite see” where AELP is going.

He talks from experience having co-founded Arch Apprentices in 2012 until it merged with Avado in 2018, achieving an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ inspection result in between. Earlier this year, Avado became the latest large training provider to leave the apprenticeships market altogether, turning its attention to “more attractive markets” instead.

It is symbolic of the strategic dichotomy facing the independent training sector struggling to turn a profit on flat apprenticeship funding rates, shrinking adult education contracts and soaring business costs.

“The guts they [ITPs] bust to deliver great apprenticeships … I am motivated by a sense of unfairness that that’s not seen,” Rowland said. “I want to make sure the efforts and that hard work is truly visible, because I don’t think it is at the moment.”

Rowland speaks about a “wariness” of independent training providers among public sector officials as a barrier to the visibility and recognition he wants for his members.

“There’s a little bit of ‘they’re different from us’ among some civil servants,” he states, adding that “high-profile scandals” in the past have left “a sense that ‘those bastards have ripped us off’”.

Kirstie Donnelly Seema Malhotra Ben Rowland David Hughes

It is a battle every AELP chief has faced. But Rowland is clear that the best people to dispel any suspicion about the independent sector are the companies themselves. His challenge to aspiring ministers, MPs and education officials is to commit to seeing at least one ITP for every college they visit.

“If you’re up in Preston, say, and you’re seeing a college, then we’ll find you a training provider. You go and see them and get to know them, see what they’re doing and really connect with the day-to-day nuts and bolts of what ITPs up and down the country are.”

Rowland is candid about the changes needed at AELP, which has been without a chief executive since the sudden departure of Jane Hickie in May. 

Although he won’t give away the precise numbers, which appear to be a closely guarded secret, “about half” of the 1,200 registered training providers are members of AELP.

He doesn’t just have his eyes on growing AELP’s membership for the sake of it though; it’s central to his strategy to boost the organisation’s influence in the corridors of power. And he wants to engage with non-member training providers directly to get them in the fold. 

Rowland hits the road in January on an 18-date tour across England, where he hopes to meet “hundreds” of AELP members. Non-members are invited too.

He is also creating a “mini-panel” of people running organisations that have left AELP, or who have never been members, “to really understand what their viewpoint is”.

But with all the well-publicised issues facing ITPs – well-publicised largely thanks to AELP  – why would anyone running one not want to be a member?

“Element by element, members like the different things that we provide,” Rowland asserts, namechecking the work done by Simon Ashworth, AELP’s policy director, who is “one of the best in the business”.

What has been missing though is “that overall sense of what’s the bigger purpose – that’s not been there the last 12 months or so”, he admits.

“I think people have said, ‘well, I’ve got tight budgets, I can’t quite see where this is going, it’s harder to justify internally’. I know what it’s like to run a training provider.

“But I don’t think it’s difficult to address that. You need to see a clear vision, and see an ongoing conversation with you that’s back open again. And I think it’s about being more clear and assertive about the wins we have had.

“Membership subs can’t be unconditional. Someone has to earn it. But I think we’re in a good position to do that. 

“I don’t want people to tell me they think their membership fee is about justified. I want it to be, like, ‘wow, absolute bargain’.”

Rowland also wants to resolve “some historic tensions” between AELP and the regional networks of training providers, which he says “are a huge asset”.

The radical centre

Another unresolved tension is the future direction of apprenticeship policy.

Our interview took place on the day the EDSK think-tank published a report calling for some of the most radical controls on apprenticeships made to date, including banning existing graduates from publicly funded apprenticeships in order to protect funding for younger people who don’t follow the academic path through education.

At the opposite end, there are those who argue against controls on apprenticeships on the grounds that it’s an employer-led system.

Rowland won’t be drawn on picking a side – “I’m in the radical centre” – but sets out his stall that a “perfect system is always changing”.

“We’ve always struggled with this in the apprenticeship system. Is it an employment programme? Is it a skills programme? The answer is it’s both, because one leads to another.”

The “purely libertarian view” that apprenticeships should be guided entirely by employer demand “just doesn’t work – because people move jobs”.

“That’s market failure. So we need to have intervention. It’s a constant kind of dance that government has to choreograph with people like me who are talking to the dancers. 

Rowland

“A perfect system, to my mind, is always changing. I will find out whether my members agree with me on that.”

Rowland’s desire to return to a debate about “the size of the pot” – the overall amount of funding committed towards skills – is perhaps more radical at a time when economists are forecasting government budget cuts and the Labour party is warning it won’t be “turning on the spending taps” if it wins the next election.

Although enthusiastic, he is hesitant about rushing in to make an all-out case for more money for the sector without first “organising our arguments”.

“We’ve got to show exactly what the system is. So, universities do this, colleges do this. Then there’s us, with our fast-moving cycles, our very close relationships with employers, our national coverage …we all play our role. And that’s where data comes in because it enables us to build a case that is also testable.”

He is convinced that he can tap into wider political narratives too: “We have to argue that we are the solution to big problems – to drive up performance in NHS, better people, better admin, you need better skills, better managers.”

Equipping himself with his members’ data comes across as a major feature in Rowland’s plan to improve AELP’s case for change. For example, he is keen to press the line that “not every [apprenticeship] withdrawal is a failure”, in contrast to education secretary Gillian Keegan’s recent remarks that high drop-out rates are a waste of taxpayers’ money.

‘This is what real poverty looks like’

Rowland refuses to be defined by his own “posh” education. “I’ve learned by doing stuff,” he says. Handy for someone who will spend most of their working life talking up apprenticeships.

But his contempt for an education system which streams by societal advantages also comes from experience. While an undergraduate at Oxford, he was introduced to Toynbee Hall, a charity that provides support services for people in poverty in east London. 

His early involvement saw him volunteer every year in a team that took disadvantaged 10 to 16-year-olds on summer camps where they would learn skills like map-reading and cooking. He would eventually chair the organisation, around the time he set up Arch Apprentices.

“My childhood was very comfortable. When I started doing this stuff with Toynbee Hall with these kids I was like, shit, this is what real poverty looks like. 

“So, if you went to a posh school with nice middle-class parents, you’re streamed down one route. But, if your mum is a bit unstable, or your dad is in prison, then you are streamed somewhere else. It’s actually not got much to do with the qualities or abilities of each person.”

Helping families to “navigate through the really crap hand they’d been dealt” led Rowland to his first job working as a consultant in regeneration. The role saw him work with government departments and local authorities on, among other things, employment programmes for young people and unemployed adults.

It was at that point he first saw what “private training providers were able to do with the right set up”. He was impressed by “how practical they could be in the way they got people back to work”.

After three years and a move back to London from Cambridge, Rowland set up his own consulting business with a friend. Specialising in data in local government, this took him all over the country, working in “bashed up estates” and in rural and urban areas. 

He sold the business after eight years and moved on to co-found Arch with the backing of Blenheim Chalcot, one of the UK’s biggest venture builders and private equity specialists. They wanted someone who could help them access government funding streams – “apprenticeships looked best” – which gave Rowland a crash course in everything SFA, funding contracts, “all of that”.

As Arch grew, Rowland found himself rubbing shoulders with sector figures on the national apprenticeship stakeholder board including the likes of the CBI and, as it happens, fellow Oxbridge graduates and FE leaders Mark Dawe and David Hughes. 

Fast forward to 2023, the now published author of Understanding apprenticeships: A student’s guide is in a job at AELP that he says “could not be a better role for me”.

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