Providers and the government need to better manage subcontracting

9 Feb 2020, 6:00

This week the ESFA published 10 subcontracting proposals in a consultation document. The FE sector is encouraged to respond – and this should put an end to speculation of a complete subcontracting ban, says Peter Mucklow

This week we published a consultation proposing reforms to the delivery of subcontracted further education provision. The proposal is calling on FE providers to give feedback on the proposed reforms by March 17. This won’t be a surprise to the sector. We have been very open about our intent to review subcontracting and we trailed our review, the reasons for it and that we would consult on it, in a personal letter from Eileen Milner to all providers receiving post-16 funds back in October 2019.

Current arrangements are not good enough

I hope the consultation quells concerns about rumours of a complete ban on subcontracting. We know that subcontracting can enrich a learner’s experience, be a necessity in some geographical locations, and – for some learner groups – be a gateway to participation. That said, current arrangements are not good enough. Some cases of subcontracting demonstrate poor planning, and too many show insufficient and inadequate oversight by those who have made the decision to subcontract provision. When this happens, unsatisfactory practice can creep in – with unacceptable consequences for both learners and the public purse.

We all want the FE and skills sector to be known for having a great reputation both nationally and internationally. As the organisation responsible for funding, it is important that we consistently review, challenge and be willing to change our practice – to make things better, and to offer the very best value for money both to our learners and to taxpayers.

This review is broad in scope, and because of its breadth and depth, we know some of these changes may take a period of years, rather than months, to fully implement. But it is important and timely to start the journey and see it through.

We need to make changes that make a positive difference

The improvement in oversight of subcontracting is not just looking at what providers can do. We know there are things the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) need to do better, which is why we are looking at how we can be more transparent in the requirements we set out, and how we use data more effectively to address concerns earlier.

However, lead providers are ultimately responsible for the subcontracting agreements they enter into – and they must improve their oversight of subcontracted provision. Learners on subcontracted provision are enrolled with lead providers – and they have every right to expect their provision to be managed as if it were directly controlled by the provider themselves.

We must be satisfied that we are managing public money properly, so we need to make changes that make a positive difference. But we must do it in a fair way – a way that respects the fact that providers may need some time to implement certain aspects of the reforms. We can only do this if organisations and networks talk and engage in the debate.

That is why we are asking those in the FE sector to tell us what they think about the proposed changes by March 17 – thus helping us make meaningful change and improvement to subcontracting

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