Subcontracting shouldn’t be a master-servant relationship

With money tighter than ever, the further education community needs to find more ways to work together, writes Sam Parrett

In the constantly changing world of FE, new policies and ideas will affect the sector in different ways – and they often divide our community.

However, I am sure that encouraging greater collaboration between colleges, independent training providers and the sector as a whole is something that everyone can see the value of.

As an AELP board member, I recently discussed this at our annual conference. It was well received and I was hugely encouraged to see such support for real partnership working across the sector.

One area in which the lack of collaboration is evident is subcontracting. Lax rules here mean funding is taken away from frontline training. Just last week a college was accused of “tactical subcontracting”, having previously charged up to 57 per cent in management fees – and they are not the only one.

Traditionally a lead provider will subcontract an organisation to deliver workplace training.

This will often end up creating a “master/servant” type of relationship, where the master calls all the shots. This is not conducive to effective delivery as the organisations are unlikely to have a common purpose. Fortunately the EFSA and the government recognise this, and there is now a review into subcontracting fees.

I am hopeful that in our bold new world of apprenticeship reform, we’ll begin to see a much more genuine collaboration between colleges and ITPs

Of course, we all run businesses which need to be financially viable – but taxpayers’ money must be spent in an appropriate and responsible way. In a sector that’s already being squeezed, it is crucial that funding is spent on learners.

I am hopeful that in our bold new world of apprenticeship reform, we’ll begin to see a much more genuine collaboration between colleges and ITPs – from initial joint funding bids, with clear advance agreement of terms.

This more equal relationship would create a number of benefits from adding value to the local community and enabling colleges to build capacity in specialist sectors, to offering a much wider mix of provision to meet the needs of both students and employers.

Expertise from smaller providers could help transform colleges and larger ITPs into more innovative organisations. Successful relationships would ultimately have a collective impact, addressing educational need across a much wider area.

A crackdown is certainly necessary, but we need to consider the much wider picture and look at the relationship between all providers, at all levels, across the sector.

There are many ways in which to work collaboratively on a much wider scale – from academy sponsorship and charitable trusts through to community interest companies and cooperative models.

At London South East Colleges, we work strategically with ITPs for mutual benefit, recognising the important role they play in ensuring we can offer a broad and flexible mix of provision. This helps us access learners in different settings, who many normally not be able to attend a large college.

We also have partnerships with a number of higher education institutions – which offers benefits to us, the universities and our students by supporting progression. And our multi-academy trust has facilitated partnerships with a number of local schools, offering supportive and alternative pathways for many young people.

Of course, not every relationship will be a match made in heaven. Recognising who wouldn’t be a suitable partner is important. For collective action to be effective, the strategic goals and aims of each organisation have to be complementary, with shared aspirations and moral purpose. Equality and fairness needs to run across participant organisations with a genuine focus on a coordinated approach.

We currently have a system where providers compete with one another, despite offering similar services and wanting the same things. Working in isolation will only ever have a limited impact, whereas working in a coordinated way will lead to a much wider collective result, benefiting learners within a community and improving outcomes.

Sam Parrett OBE is Principal and CEO of London South East Colleges

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