An apprenticeship provider has had its funding contract terminated by the government after another failed legal challenge against a grade four Ofsted report.
The Education and Skills Funding Agency’s decision to kick The Opportunity Group out of the apprenticeships market comes seven months after inspectors visited the Newcastle-based provider.
After receiving the lowest possible rating, The Opportunity Group instructed Lester Aldridge Solicitors – a law firm retained by numerous providers in a similar position in recent years – to appeal against the “unfairness” of the report.
The ESFA held off on ending the provider’s contract while representations were made and until after Ofsted had conducted a follow-up monitoring visit, the report for which was published this month. It resulted in three ‘reasonable’ judgements but one of ‘insufficient’ progress.
Agency officials contacted The Opportunity Group’s owners last week to confirm they would go ahead with contract termination, in line with funding rules for apprenticeship provider’s judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
The company will continue to deliver commercial rather than government-funded training, but jobs will be lost as a result.
Co-founder Kate Temple-Brown said: “We are saddened by the decision the ESFA has made to terminate our contract despite us providing clear examples and reasons as to why we disagreed with the judgements and gradings in our full inspection.
“We have exhausted our ability to continue legal action due to the high costs involved and the likelihood of us succeeding against the ESFA. We have also seen the sad outcome for other training providers who have had their contracts terminated, despite legal challenge.”
Training providers have long complained about the regime adopted by the ESFA whereby an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted report leads to automatic contract termination. Many firms threaten legal action where they feel the judgement is unreasonable, but they rarely follow this through due to the significant costs involved.
Two providers failed in high court bids to overturn ‘inadequate’ judgements and contract termination last month. Like The Opportunity Group, both firms argued against alleged factual inaccuracies and disproportionate Ofsted judgements, including that inspectors had failed to take into consideration the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Temple-Brown said she hopes that, through the “collective power of independent training providers” that policy “will change, so that this removal of funding, based on the current system of inspection, doesn’t continue to happen unjustly to other providers”.
The Opportunity Group was delivering training to over 600 apprentices mostly on leadership and management programmes at level 3 and above at the time of Ofsted’s full inspection in June 2022 – nearly triple the number it had during a monitoring visit from Ofsted in early 2020.
In the report, Ofsted criticised the provider for allegedly putting adults on to unsuitable apprenticeships – an issue that led to large numbers dropping out and too many apprenticeships running significantly beyond their planned end date.
The watchdog also found that, in too many cases, apprentices were not receiving sufficient time to complete their apprenticeship during working hours or attending off-the-job training.
The provider claimed these issues were a consequence of delivering apprenticeships throughout the pandemic.