Just 6,375 out of 13,420 adult retail apprentices succeeded

England’s biggest apprenticeship provider has come under fire from the chair of a government watchdog after “appalling” figures revealed less than half of its retail and wholesale leavers qualified last year.

Just 47.5 per cent of Elmfield Training’s 13,420 leavers in the sector aged 25 or more walked away with an apprenticeship certificate in 2011/12.

The official minimum level of performance (MLP) is 53 per cent and Elmfield was the only provider in this bracket (25 and over in the retail and wholesale learners, and with at least 100 leavers) to miss the quality threshold, according to National Success Rate Tables published by the Data Service.

A spokesperson for Elmfield, which delivered the majority of its apprenticeships for supermarket giant Morrisons, said that “tough trading conditions” in the retail sector made it difficult to access and support learners last year.

However, Adrian Bailey, chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee, who has previously questioned Elmfield’s profit levels, called for official action on the firm’s performance.

“Elmfield is a major training provider in receipt of substantial funds from government,” he said.

“With such a low level of success it seems that a large amount of public money was wasted.

“In light of the BIS Select Committee criticism of this company and its profits, demands were made upon the government to be more rigorous in its monitoring of Elmfield and value for money.

“These figures are appalling and I will be putting it to the committee that we write to the government pointing this out, and demanding action from both Ofsted and the Skills Funding Agency.”

Elmfield, whose agency contract last academic year was £37,906,346 and currently stands at £27,649,434, was last inspected by Ofsted in July 2011 and got a satisfactory — grade three — rating. The education watchdog is due to visit again by September next year.

A spokesperson for the agency said it took “robust and proportionate action” where providers failed to reach performance targets.

“We are unable to provide specific details until we have discussed next steps with individual providers,” she said.

Elmfield had 22,290 apprenticeship leavers across all ages and sectors, including business administration, last year and achieved an overall success rate of 58.5 per cent. The next biggest, with 13,830 leavers, was Babcock, which achieved 71.4 per cent.

The Elmfield spokesperson said it was moving away from retail.

She said: “Fewer than 40 per cent of new learners joining our programmes are in retail this year and the proportion will continue to fall, partly as a result of Elmfield’s decision not to tender for a new contract with Morrisons.”

She added: “Further analysis of 2011/12 shows that, without retail 25+ learners, the success rate would be over 75 per cent.

“In retail, success rates for 16 to 18-year-olds was 79.4 per cent, comparing favourably to a sector national average of 75.1 per cent.

“For learners aged 19 to 24, the success rate was 75.1 per cent against the sector national average of 75.2 per cent. Of those learners who left without completing the framework the great majority (84 per cent) passed both the Qualifications and Credit Framework and technical certificates.

“For MLP purposes our performance against the new retail framework in 2011/12 was 67.9 per cent for all ages, and the 25+ success rate was 63 per cent.

“The strain put on our retail partners by the economic conditions in 2011/12 had a significant but shortlived effect on our performance.

“In previous years, Elmfield’s performance has been significantly above the national average.

“We have now turned the corner and are pleased to see our success rate back where it belongs.”


Editorial: Rewarding failure

It has been 21 months since the first Elmfield adult retail apprentice leaver in the 2011/12 academic year, and we now know less than half achieved their framework.

Let’s look at the scale of this failure for all its apprentices.

In total, Elmfield had 22,290 leavers with an average success rate of 58.5 per cent, representing six percent of the England’s total 360,930 leavers (who had an average rate of 73.8 per cent).

Statistically, this means Elmfield alone dragged England’s overall apprenticeship national success rate down by a full percentage point.

For a provider which has said it receives all of its money from the government, you would think failure on this scale would not be rewarded.

But in the 2010/11 financial year the directors of Elmfield drew pre-tax dividends of £6.5m on a £34m turnover, and Ged Syddall, chief executive and majority shareholder, saw his salary more than quadruple to £408,000 for 2011/12.

Unsurprisingly, Adrian Bailey MP, like the rest of us, would like to know how the Skills Funding Agency and Ofsted allowed this to happen — and what they intend to do about it.

It’s time for the agency to get tough and limit the public money it allows provider shareholders to receive.

Nick Linford, editor of FE Week

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  1. In the meantime, other prime contractors have gone bust with barely a whimper from the SFA or media, leaving sub-contractors facing bankruptcy. I was lucky enough to attend the launch of the massive Barclays apprenticeship programme at several of their launch events in Romford, Stoke on Trent and the Docklands — the goal 15,000 young people being supported into quality long term jobs by 2015. You’ll never guess who is providing the training for these people — but maybe a new story isn’t a news story.

  2. Surely Elmfield’s success rates have been affected by them actually having to train people to do things rather than just assesing what they can already do, which I seem to recall was reported as their modus operandi when they were getting away with incredibly short “apprenticeships”?

  3. Just to add to the above, Nick is right to question a regulatory framework that so often can only wring its hands and promise to do something about it — next time. This came out very clearly when the Select Committee took evidence. But equally, this makes life very hard for providers, both private and public, to manage their services going forward, when they have to anticipate changes in regulatory and funding environments. In the meantime, youth unemployment sits at around 1 million.

    A final thought, can there ever be an easy interface between the provision of public services, and private profit? Think hospitals, schools, training?

  4. Lindsay McCurdy

    The Elmfield spokesperson said it was moving away from retail in the above article.

    She added: “Further analysis of 2011/12 shows that, without retail 25+ learners, the success rate would be over 75 per cent.

    “In retail, success rates for 16 to 18-year-olds was 79.4 per cent, comparing favourably to a sector national average of 75.1 per cent

    If I remember rightly the Morrison’s apprenticeships scheme for people aged 16-18 numbers were only in the low hundreds, it is amazing what you can do with numbers.

    Any training provider with such a low completion rate should be looked at and not just the company mentioned above. We want employers to know
    that apprenticeships are about quality and delivery of service and not just a tick box exercise.

    Small training providers would find it hard to source funding if they had this return rate.

    Should apprenticeship funding be concentrated on the 16 – 24 aged group, to reduce the 1m young unemployed and to increase the number of young people starting an apprenticeship, also for people who have not worked in a sector before (any age), or should we continue to give apprenticeship funding to already employed staff? as was the case in the above mentioned scheme.

  5. When the stories surfaced last year about Elmfield one of the really big surprises was just how big a profit they were making from training and the bonus being paid to a chief executive that dwarfed some of that given to bankers. The simple question raised in most minds was the morality behind that when the level of funding was supposed to go towards training. We have an inspection result that shows they were not good at what they did and performance results that have a headline of appalling success. It is not good enough to pick out the pockets where you do well. Why not spend some of those vast profits on putting some extra support in place for your failing apprentices? The question that should be asked is how they have been allowed to be continued to be funded at such high levels? It should be noted that the national average for overall success rates for apprentices fell last year to 73.8% (drop of 1.8 points) and the timely rate dropped even more to 57.1% (a drop of 8.5 points). For some reason this drop in performance has not really received much attention along with the decrease in 16-18 year olds wanting to be apprentices? The alarm bells should be ringing about what is happening to all the young people staying an extra year in compulsory education and training. Funding needs to be given on the basis of the quality of what can be offered rather than the quantity.

    I have been involved with inspecting apprenticeships since day one of the Training Standards Council and have led every survey carried out by inspectorates of apprenticeships. The improvement overall has been remarkable and I have been amazed by some of the outstanding training, skills development and support that I have seen over 15 years. Sadly the apprenticeship brand has begun to be diluted by introducing frameworks for areas that, with the best will in the world, do not have the technical requirements to be apprenticeships along with boosting apparent apprenticeship numbers with adults already in jobs. Government has also allowed too much profit to be made by some organisations at the expense of their apprentices. Surely it is not too difficult to ensure that the maximum profit that can be derived from training is capped?

  6. Phil makes all the right point:
    * Funding should be for quality not quantity
    * Performance standards dropping
    * Decline in numbers of 16-18 year olds entering apprenticeships (I have written on this)
    * Dilution of quality through introduction of “mickey mouse” frameworks and adult re-training masquerading as apprenticeships

    Have all the reviews to date tackled these issues head on, or have they pussy footed around them, or worse still, connived at their continuance for reasons of political expediency?

  7. Nelly

    The creation of huge providers, including Elmfield, Newcastle College and other colleges delivering huge WBL contracts was just an easy option for the SFA. The SFA forced lots of quality smaller providers into oblivion because they couldn’t be arsed to manage their contracts properly and therefore made them become sub-contractors. This is not a provider problem, it’s an agency problem.
    The SFA and the Tory government are now facilitating Employers getting their hands on the funding to deliver apprenticeships. When a large employer gets poor success results nothing will be done. Because the large employer will simply tell the SFA and ministers to do one. Which of course a provider/college can’t do.

  8. There is a danger that we will end up doing a “Panorama” here and drawing incorrect conclusions based on one set of results from one private training provider (PTP). The growth and success of the Apprenticeship programme over recent years has been driven by large corporate programmes many of which are world-class. As a member of the judging panel on the 2012 Apprenticeship Awards, I was able to see the quality of those programs for myself. Rolls-Royce, BT, Whitbread, Spirit Group and many others run outstanding programs and the vast majority of these programmes are supported by PTPs who believe it or not are totally dedicated to the needs of their learners and who do not operate on excessively high margins.

    I am not in a position to comment on Elmfield and the Morrisons programme although there are clearly issues here which need to be understood and lessons to be learnt. However, I am reminded of a story related by Nick Faldo’s coach when the former was at the height of his career. He said that after a tournament, they analysed every shot in detail but instead of concentrating on the shots that ended in a bunker, their primary focus was on the really great shots and how Nick could do more of them.

    Perhaps we should take a similar view of Apprenticeships.

  9. Martin

    We must also remember in all of this that there are Assessors at the bottom of this pile. The majority of which are trying to deliver the best possible service to their learners. I have a sense that Elmfield Training will be making life pretty tough for these guys and girls again as when they were in similar difficulties last year I seem to remember them using Redundancies and also putting them under huge pressure.
    I’m glad that Morrisons have decided to go with a Not for Profit organisation. Maybe then we can get away from the grotesque spectacle of a chief exec and a board who Tell staff that they are getting no Wage increases whilst paying themselves outrageous inflation busting salaries of £400,00 +
    Time for an investigation by the SFA and Ofsted, which needs to be thorough and deep and maybe involve looking at what has been claimed, how it has been claimed and what pressures have actually been put upon Assessors and Training staff to complete paperwork in a sub standard way in the name of Profit.