SFA funding software delay as provider data deadline looms

Providers will have just eight working days to check and correct their 2013/14 academic year data as the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) yesterday announced a further delay to their new funding software.

At the 25 September information authority board meeting Rich Williams, head of the Data Service (which sits within the SFA) said: “We intend to deliver all of products in the Data Collections and Funding Transformation (DCFT) programme as planned on or before Thursday, 24 October.

As usual this will give providers at least two weeks to resolve any data errors and return their individualised learner record (ILR) R03 data, which is due by Wednesday, 6 November.”

The DCFT programme includes supplying providers with software for checking for data errors and calculating funding in 2013/14, known as the Funding Information System (FIS).

Currently only a test version the software (FIS Beta) is available, which many providers have not installed and does not calculate funding.

However, yesterday the Data Service said: “Technical issues concerning the bringing together of a number of different Agency products and systems, combined with the complexity of managing numerous suppliers in the same technical space, have lead to a change in our planned delivery.”

There was no mention of the delay in the SFA weekly update, also published yesterday, but the Data Service announcement continued: “FIS Beta will be taken offline from 10am Thursday 24 October 2013 to allow for essential updates to be applied. Once FIS Beta is available again at 9am on Monday 28 October, more issues will have been fixed, including:

•   Improvements to a number of reports
•   Data issues associated with Functional Skills
•   Validation errors on a number of forms

A new set of learning aim data will also be uploaded during this down time. A full reinstall of FIS Beta will be required which means that all installed copies of FIS Beta must be removed.”

There are just eight working days from Monday 28 October to the data return deadline on Wednesday 6 November, and as the first data return of the year it will mean many providers will need to check tens of thousands of learner records.

The Data Service announcement added: “DCFT products continue to be developed with a revised delivery timeline that will support R04 on 6 December.”

The announcement included no reference to the Learning Aims Reference System (LARS), also part of the DCFT programme, which holds qualification cash values, and is required to calculate the funding value of the ILR data.

FE Week is making enquiries with the SFA as to when LARS will be available.

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  1. Mark Gould

    This is really the most apalling mess! What concerns providers is the inflexible attitude of the Data Service and the SFA, and the seeming refusal to accept that software that was originally slated for release in May 2013 will not be available until November, and currently suffers from a number of technical and data issues.

    Furthermore, if the release is further delayed, it will seriously impact on Providers’ ability to validate their R04 return.

  2. Cynical

    The analysis of working days to achieve the return following this latest delay overlooks the fact that w/c 28 October is half term for many state schools. Quite a number of staff will have booked leave in this week and are likely to have less than 8 working days.
    The Data Service continually fails to deliver to target and it is clear it is not Fit for Purpose. Time for a National Audit Office investigation perhaps.

  3. Does this mean that those providers who go through a Proxy server will actually be able to download the new “live” FIS released on Monday 28th?? no mention of this as one of the fixes included. We need to give our ICT team notice to install software on pc’s so we will probably have about 3 working days to produce, validate and submit our R03!

  4. TWO YEARS this has been planned for, TWO YEARS! And throughout that time we’ve been assured that everything was running to plan and it was all going to be fine. It’s only since June when nothing appeared that we’ve realised that the whole project was on the verge of collapsing and, I think, could now be said to have failed.
    Also, let’s make it clear that the main reason a lot of providers haven’t installed FIS beta isn’t through laziness or not caring, it’s because the damn thing can’t be installed on standard college networks with usual levels of security because it needs all sorts of proxy and firewall settings switching off which, even with a willing IT team, can take an age. Those in Local Government Adult Ed departments stand no chance. There have been jokes made about taking a laptop down the pub to use the free wifi to install and use it, but I’m starting to think it’s a realistic option…
    For primes paid on profile with a steady enrolment profile this is, on a macro scale, an annoyance, it’s not really affecting the income their business receives. If I was an indy or a sub-contractor I’d be furious right now, this is really stopping a key part of their business from operating successfully.

  5. Gill Murray

    Absolutely ridiculous! We can’t install FIS Beta due to the network problems and, like most providers, are resource strapped which means we haven’t got a hope in hell of meeting such a tight deadline. It is not going to be an error free return, will be of no relevance in determining performance, and won’t give us any idea of what we are earning. A pointless exercise and a waste of precious resource and time!

  6. What a mess. The FE Connect forums are full of issues around the serious flaws in the systems – particularly the FIS Beta. SFA update 180 claims that after ‘receiving your feedback on the new data collection system, we have reviewed the R03 data collection process to give providers more time to submit a valid data file’. I would love to see the feedback on this non-existent data system. As Mark (and Cynical) highlight, it’s about time this is taken further, or someone holds their hands up and admits the failure to provide software that is fit for purpose, rather than inferring that providers are somehow also to blame for not being able to submit a return.

  7. Steve Bowler

    I beleive that although the Data Service advise we upload data for R03, as we are being paid on profile for this period and not on actuals until R04 I think we have more time to sort the data, I’d be surprised if we are all able to submit valid data for 6th Nov.

    Completely agree with how much of a mess this whole situation is though, I have over 11,000 rule violations at the moment that I beleive should be rectified once FIS and LARS are updated but at the moment I’m having to manually try to work out how much funding we have in the system. I have contacted the Data Service who cannot help me, I’ve sent 10 emails to the ‘beta support’ email address about my problems and have received no response.

    For those of you having problems or are interested in seeing other conversations in relation to this, I suggest going over to forums.theia.org.uk


  8. This has just been a complete farce from day one. As Steve points out, this has been going on for two years and it is only now that they have admitted (almost) that the entire thing is crashing down around them.

    I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg as well – the FIS Beta is likely to be a lot simpler than their backend systems and they cannot even get that right so I would expect things to be in even more of a mess within the Data Service systems themselves. My technicians reckon it is all just too complicated and I think they are right. Someone in the SFA designed a system that was too complicated to deliver even in the time they had available and that is why we are where we are. Who was that person? Are they still employed at SFA or were they just a freelance consultant riding the FE gravy train into the sunset?

    I would also urge a NAO investigation into this screwup as many of us entirely innocent third parties are now at financial risk due to the SFAs incompetence. That just isn’t acceptable at any time; let alone in todays economic climate.

  9. As a software supplier and consultant I have had first-hand experience of the problems caused to the FE sector by the delayed implementation of the Data Collections & Funding Transformation Programme (DCFT)
    The DCFT Programme which originally started in May 2012 has fallen behind the planned delivery timeline by in my estimation over 6 months and this has caused serious difficulties to Colleges and Private Training Providers who in general now have no accurate indication of their income to date for the current academic year and are not in a position to complete the returns required by the SFA that are used to inform government of the numbers in Further Education and Apprenticeships.
    To give an indication of the issues that this delay in implementation has caused, as a software supplier it is necessary that I have access to the funding calculation specifications so that these can be incorporated into the software required by FE providers. The original availability of these specifications from the EFA and SFA were defined as a key business obligation and planned for release to the sector by the 31st March 2013. While the EFA were able to meet this obligation for some reason the SFA were not and this necessitated a freedom of information request to obtain some relevant documentation from the SFA but to date the release of these specification by the SFA is still outstanding 3 months after the academic year has started.
    Providers and software suppliers are frustrated by the poor communication strategy of the Data Service and SFA as they have not kept us informed throughout the process but have only it appears reacted and informed us when contingency plans were due to be implemented for which we have gone through A to C and are now on Plan D.
    I would like to hope that financial penalties had been included in the contracts awarded to those responsible for the delay in implementation or if it is due to poor management by a government agency that some action is taken to ensure that this is not repeated in the future.

    • I’ll put a fiver on it being the fault of the agency. The hastily produced PR spin was “issues concerning the bringing together of a number of different Agency products and systems, combined with the complexity of managing numerous suppliers” and that tells me that the SFA were leading on this – they didn’t try to blame a big outsourcer.

      It was just too complicated for them wasn’t it? They forgot the KISS principle and thought they were cleverer / more professional than they are. They’re not big, they’re not clever and they’re going to be directly responsible for a lot of heartache in the sector.

      I’ll put another fiver on them publicly blaming their suppliers though. They’ll then nip off for another pile of money from the public purse so they can do this again.

      Someone needs to pick this story up and run with it. Hooray for FEWeek.

  10. Jon Carr

    I agree with everything above, but have the following to add:
    – only a few months ago, the Skills Funding Agency were constantly going on about how simple the new funding methodology is. Great, so the new funding software will be very straight forward then …
    – the Head of the Data Service indicated (verbally, in front of an audience of MIS managers) that LARs would be ready to go live in January 2013. I make that 9 or 10 months late, which must be a new record even for the Data Service/SFA.
    – as mentioned previously, the communication has been utterly appalling, even now the Data Service/SFA seem reluctant to admit there is any problem.
    All in all, a complete mess, but as usual no-one takes any responsibility.

  11. Rob Boucherat

    How are we supposed to calculate our funding? This was originally intended for release in May 2013!! Heaven knows what will happen when the Apprenticeships funding changes happen. Instead of simplification we now have the likelihood of 3 different funding methodologies, EFA, SFA (Adults) and Apprenticeships – how is that for reducing bureaucracy?

  12. John Littler

    When my IT gurus finally got FIS running (I was unable to myself), I started with 25,000 validation errors and 4 fully valid students. Normally I would sort these within EBS, which is quick and simple, but because of the delays that Martin West refers to, I have to look up each validation rule error in the error spreadsheet and then go back to EBS to repair it. I am now down to 4,000 errors, but now FIS is off-line again ready for the finished version to be installed on Monday.

  13. I would say “I dont believe it” but with the number of deadlines that the SFA continually miss (and then expect instant responses form providers) beggars belief. As other observers have noted, so much for simplification. On a serious note, this delay completely dis-empowers providers in terms of forward planning and performance management. You can bet your bottom dollar that there will be a complete lack of sympathy or understanding for those of us who struggle to

  14. Elaine Fitchie

    This is extremely frustrating. As a main provider in a large local authority who has a strategic partnership to deliver IT solutions it was always going to be a challenge getting priority given to this. However, having gone to great lengths to get our strategic partner to understand the importance and to put the resources in place to respond (at a cost I should add) the rug is now pulled from under us. They have quite rightly expressed irritation after having taken staff off other jobs to priortise this and are now telling me they can’t guarantee they can deliver once the new deadline is announced. And to make matters worse we may face additional charges from them should the final version be different to the Beta version!