A businessman has vowed never to re-enter the FE training market if his apprenticeship provider’s contract is terminated following an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted assessment that left him “stunned”.
Wildes Education has operated as a subcontractor for over a decade and began direct delivery in 2018, training apprentices in adult care, hospitality and catering, hairdressing and administration.
The private provider now faces being kicked out of the apprenticeships market, under Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) rules, after Ofsted gave it a grade four report this week following the firm’s first full inspection visit in December.
The watchdog’s report included some positives but delivered the lowest possible judgment overall mainly due to “limited” training. “Too many apprentices do not receive enough time at work to complete their studies,” Ofsted reported. “As a result, they study in their own time, balancing their personal commitments with the completion of their apprenticeship.”
Owner Paul Wildes, who also runs hotels, restaurants, spas and is a racehorse owner and breeder, said he was shocked at the inspectorate’s approach considering the challenges the sector has faced with Covid-19 lockdowns.
“In adult care and hospitality to a similar degree, providing training during the pandemic was difficult because obviously we weren’t allowed in to visit the students,” he told FE Week.
“It just seemed like inspectors believe the pandemic never happened. And, if it did happen, it certainly shouldn’t have impacted training, which was just a very difficult position for us to come back from because it did happen.”
Wildes admitted that some of his 200 apprentices were behind on their training but were due to have caught up in three months’ time.
He claimed inspectors told him that, if they had visited three months later, his provider’s grade would have been higher. He also claimed that Ofsted’s team told him they feel his provider should not lose its apprenticeships contract over this judgment.
Wildes Education is the latest in a string of providers to complain that Ofsted has failed to take into consideration the impact of the pandemic when delivering ‘inadequate’ reports. Some have tried and failed to challenge the grades and subsequent contract termination legally.
Wildes told FE Week he did seek legal advice but decided against formal action considering the cost involvement and unlikelihood of success. He hit out at the “autocratic” system in which private training providers have to work.
“The ESFA have the ability to take your contract away no matter what happens, which is an unusual state for any business to operate in when you actually understand somebody has the ultimate power to take all your business away without even giving you a reason to do that.”
Wildes said he had not received any communication from the ESFA following Ofsted’s judgment, but he was expecting contract termination.
If this does happen, it would “certainly stop me from coming into this sector again, because you can’t run a business when somebody has the ultimate authority to take something away from you”.
He added: “This business, unusually I suppose, was never about making money for me. It was about trying to make a difference. I feel like I’m not going to be able to deliver that anymore, which is sad.”
Wildes Education has around 15 staff whose jobs would be at risk if the company is wound down. The ESFA does not comment on individual cases.