Ofsted slates US firm with £5m DfE bootcamps contract

Whistleblower flagged concerns last year but no action was taken

Whistleblower flagged concerns last year but no action was taken

A US firm that enticed the Department for Education into handing over £5 million to deliver skills bootcamp training despite having no employees in England has been censured by Ofsted.

edX Boot Camps (UK) Limited, a subsidiary of American education technologies giant 2U, has put more than 2,000 adults through a front-end web development bootcamp in just 18 months.

Sessions are delivered online after the working day, and the organisation of job interviews, which are supposed to be a guaranteed feature of the training scheme, are outsourced to recruitment firms.

In a report published this week, Ofsted slammed the company after finding out how few participants in the bootcamps entered work, and how many dropped out after experiencing a lack of personal teaching. The watchdog also found the company ignored its safeguarding responsibilities.

Inspectors said edX leaders had taught “bootcamps” online in America and drew on this knowledge and expertise to plan courses in front-end web development in England, which were intended to fill skills gaps in the digital sector.

However, leaders “underestimated the challenges that this would pose, particularly in teaching courses over fewer weeks than those to which they were accustomed”.

Skills bootcamps in England last up to 16 weeks, whereas the versions offered in America can be longer. For example, a cybersecurity bootcamp offered at the University of Connecticut by edX International lasted for 24 weeks. 

“Very few” of edX UK’s learners who do pass their courses then attend the job interviews set up for them, inspectors found. Leaders and managers blamed this on learners not taking up the “self-guided careers support available to them”.

Whistle was blown last year

Ofsted’s report ruled that edX was making “insufficient progress” – the lowest possible judgment for an early monitoring visit – in two of the three areas inspected.

FE Week understands that edX was reported to the DfE by a whistleblower last year amid fears over the treatment of students and the safety of public funds after its US overseers allegedly reneged on promises to employ England-based coaches to deliver the contract.

It was also alleged that 2U management was not concerned about edX UK student outcomes as they would make a profit on the contract even if no bootcamp participant moved on to a job.

2U has hit the headlines over the past year as reports surfaced of its mounting financial trouble. The company published an article titled “setting the record straight” on its website last month, denying it was on the verge of an imminent shutdown.

The DfE has the power to suspend learner recruitment and payments to skills bootcamps providers that are found making “insufficient progress” by Ofsted.

The department declined to comment on what action, if any, it will take against edX. It also refused to defend its decision to hand a multi-million-pound contract to the company.

At the time of going to press, edX was recruiting for upcoming bootcamp programmes in the UK.

The government’s “list of skills bootcamp providers” states that edX delivers its courses in partnership with the University of Birmingham, although there is no mention of this relationship in Ofsted’s report.

A University of Birmingham spokesperson declined to comment on Ofsted’s concerns, but said: “We are committed to ensuring our students receive a high-quality educational experience across all modes of delivery and levels of study, including our portfolio of short courses for adult learners and apprenticeship programmes, which are monitored by Ofsted.”

One size does not fit all

Skills bootcamps were launched as a government-funded programme in 2020 as part of then-chancellor Rishi Sunak’s attempts to train more adults in areas of national skills shortage, such as construction, manufacturing and digital.

Over half a billion pounds has been committed to the intensive courses that are studied at levels 3 to 5, last between 12 and 16 weeks, are free to participants, and end with a guaranteed job interview.

There has been concern about oversight of the programme, given that much funding was initially handed to commercial firms outside of scope for Ofsted inspections.

There were over 55,000 starts on skills bootcamps across England between 2021 and 2023, according to latest government data.

2U bought what was then known as Trilogy Education Services for a reported $750 million in 2019.

It changed Trilogy’s name to edX Boot Camps (UK) Limited in October 2022 after securing a £4.8 million skills bootcamps contract with the DfE that month. The name change also came after 2U bought most of edX, a virtual class service created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a reported $800 million.

edX Boot Camps (UK) Limited’s accounts filed with Companies House show it has zero employees. There is also no working email address or phone number on the company’s website.

Ofsted did find that edX instructors and teaching assistants use “high-quality resources, which the curriculum development team updates very frequently, to teach learners current industry knowledge and up-to-date coding skills”.

However, instructors do not assess learners’ prior knowledge and skills thoroughly at the start of their courses. They teach all groups of learners the same content, and dedicate the same amount of time to each topic. This had led to students with no prior skills in writing code to struggle to keep up with the requirements of the web design course.

To date, the proportion of learners who pass their courses is “low”, according to Ofsted’s report.

Leaders and managers “do not have sufficient oversight of the progress that learners make”, nor do they “scrutinise delays in the submission of work to identify learners who may be falling behind with their studies, so that they can support them and prevent them from leaving before the end of the course”.

The DfE originally ruled that Ofsted did not need to inspect skills bootcamps because the department itself monitored performance throughout the contract duration, and providers have to provide evidence that training will be high quality for their bid to be successful.

It reversed this decision in late 2022 after a “thematic survey” by Ofsted flagged inconsistent quality of training and poor oversight of contract delivery.

edX and 2U did not respond at the time of going to press.

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