A fifth of providers believe adult education budget tenders run by devolved authorities need to be improved, with one saying bidding was a “nightmare”, according to new Association of Employment and Learning Providers research.

Ahead of their autumn conference in Manchester today, the AELP surveyed 93 providers on devolved AEB procurement after the budget was handed over to six mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority in August.

The survey found transparency in the bidding process was one area where changes should be made: one provider said it had been a “nightmare for bid writers” and respondents revealed they would not have bothered bidding if they had known only a few contracts were being awarded.

Twenty nine of the survey respondents won devolved AEB contracts for 2019/20, compared with 69 in 2018/19; and the value of those contracts was generally lower than last year as well, providers reported.

Respondents also complained unproven providers with good bid writers won over those with a good track record and a foothold in their local community.

The combined authorities also came in for criticism for their “poor” understanding of skills; and for “focusing on activity with residents over skills and employment partnership, so skills needs are now unmet”.

Asked which sectors or subjects they thought will be lost or significantly reduced to the point it would cause skills shortages in a devolved area, providers’ single greatest concern was for health and social care, followed by retail and commercial – but respondents acknowledged there are wider factors at play in that area.

Respondents wanted consistency across areas as well, saying dealings with some MCAs were “overly-complex”, while others were “too light touch to make credible judgements”.

Regulations also left providers vexed, with reports providers that complied with guidance were unsuccessful due to a technical point which appeared to contradict guidance.

FE Week approached the six mayoral combined authorities with an AEB devolution deal, as well as the Greater London Authority.

The GLA’s deputy mayor for skills Jules Pipe said: “As City Hall takes over responsibility for London’s share of the Adult Education Budget, we are working closely with education and skills providers and investing in new projects to ensure all Londoners have access to the training and education they need.

“Following significant engagement with the sector we awarded 29 contracts totalling £130 million to deliver the AEB programme, and are currently reviewing the key lessons learned from the procurement process.”

A spokesperson for the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority said: “We have been evaluating the process for procuring services to develop a system which is accessible, transparent and delivers contracts that best meets our skills objectives.

“The report’s findings will be read with interest as part of our ongoing work to improve.”

The AELP said respondents gave a “reasonably positive verdict overall to the series of AEB tenders”, and chief executive Mark Dawe said it was hoped the survey will help combined authorities and the national government “finesse their approach during a recognised period of transition”.

Over 80 per cent of responses to the AELP’s survey said it was difficult or very difficult to engage with a lead or prime provider; only seven said it was easy or very easy.

The survey confirmed one reason for this was prime providers had a reduced budget, leaving them nothing left to subcontract out.

Another problem, according to the report, was: “Unsuccessful partners and others seeking subcontracts weren’t given the names of the AEB contract winners, so had to ring around to ask and sometimes couldn’t find who it was.”

But respondents also said contract winners were now seeking new partnerships, which indicated they requested more than they could use.

Dawe said: “We knew they were never going to be plain sailing and it was only the first year of a transitional process.

“If notice is taken of the AELP survey findings and the combined authorities start to procure more of the budget in future years, we could well be on the right track to the AEB delivering the much-needed skills that the English regions require.”

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