Staff are being made redundant at a large community learning provider in Somerset after it was dealt yet another damaging blow from an Education and Skills Funding Agency tender.
Somerset Skills & Learning was refused a £1.1 million contract in the recent national adult education budget (AEB) procurement, leaving the education of 300 people hanging in the balance and the jobs of 18 tutors at risk.
The decision comes four years after the provider faced a 97 per cent cut following the 2017 AEB tender fiasco, which resulted in multiple Conservative MPs lobbying then-skills minister Anne Milton and forcing her to find an alternative funding solution.
The case was particularly controversial because SS&L was originally funded through Somerset county council, but in 2015 it was encouraged by the government to transition to a private provider. Had it stayed part of the council, SS&L would not have been forced to take part in either bidding round, as local authorities are outside public procurement regulations and receive grant-funding like colleges.
Kathryn Baker, SS&L’s chief executive, said this latest decision to refuse her organisation an AEB contract is a “bitter blow to our community, local employers and our staff”.
The provider, which teaches around 7,000 learners every year and is rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, was so confident of gaining an allocation that it began recruiting learners before outcomes were revealed. It currently has around 300 adults due to start their courses this month in lower level entry qualifications for English and maths and digital skills.
SS&L is trying to again lobby MPs and minister Gillian Keegan to reverse the decision but has not received any response so far. If they are unsuccessful, the provider will attempt to gain a subcontract to deliver the provision or meet the cost itself.
The provider was at risk of closure in 2017 following the tender debacle, but its situation is not as devastating this time round.
It still holds a £2.5 million contract for community learning services, following the ESFA’s controversial decision to run a separate tender for this provision in Somerset annually after the 2017 fiasco came to light.
Baker told FE Week: “What the government has done for Somerset is effectively split our adult education budget into community learning and AEB. So we have got funding for community learning, apprenticeships and traineeships, but now we’ve got nothing for AEB accredited delivery such as the entry and lower levels of qualifications. We’re also excluded from the National Skills Fund.”
She continued: “SS&L is unique because we support learners who would find attending college a barrier. We have small classes and are unique with five centres across Somerset, resourced with a highly talented and experienced group of tutors.
“We pride ourselves in being able to offer qualifications at entry level and above. This funding will leave a huge gap in the provision of adult education in Somerset, especially at the entry and lower levels of qualifications. This outcome has also put 18 dedicated SS&L staff at risk of redundancy.”
Sue Pember, a former director of FE funding in the Department for Education who is now the policy director of adult education network HOLEX, said this is “another example where a good service loved by their community and well thought of by employers is being destabilised by bureaucratic processes that don’t reflect local need”.
She added: “ESFA need to find a solution and quick. We all need to work together to get the learners back in learning and not but barriers in their way.”
Baker said she has tried to rally the local MPs – Marcus Fysh, James Heappey, Rebecca Pow and David Warburton – who stepped in to fight for their funding in 2017. FE Week has approached the MPs for comment but they did not respond at the time of going to press.
Results for this year’s AEB national tender were finally communicated to independent training providers on July 14 following multiple delays. A total of 83 winners are sharing a £62.6 million pot.
Asked why she felt SS&L’s bid failed, Baker said: “There is a clear drive to reduce the number of independent training providers delivering on government contracts for whatever reason. I think this was a direct result of that.”
The ESFA told FE Week that all bids submitted for the AEB procurement were assessed in line with the published evaluation criteria and methodology, and the award decision notices outline the rationale for award or non-award.