The Department for Education has been accused of “locking out” small firms in a highly restrictive and secretive T-level tender.
A short procurement exercise was launched by the department on February 25 to find a company to help develop a “transitional” course, which 16-year-olds can take if they are not ready to start a T-level at level three, but who can “realistically achieve it” by age 19.
But the tender, which runs for just 15 days, has only been made available to suppliers in a specific category in its Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS).
It concerns us that a bureaucratic system may end up locking out diverse level of expertise
The DfE has refused to tell FE Week which category it is allowing to bid, release the tender documents, list who is eligible to apply or even say how much the contract is worth.
Companies that wanted to bid in the tender but have been blocked have since contacted FE Week and expressed frustration.
Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, is not happy.
“It concerns us that a bureaucratic system like dynamic purchasing may in fact end up locking out the diverse level of expertise that we know T-Levels requires in order to be a success,” he said.
“Restrictive procurement practices of this nature and rushed timescales fly in the face of the government’s own stated objectives of trying to engage more small businesses in contract tenders.
“The majority of awarding bodies are small firms, so it is wrong that they are being unduly penalised as a result.”
Asked why it didn’t put the tender on wider platforms, such as Contracts Finder, and open it to all organisations, a DfE spokesperson said: “For a successful delivery, the T-level transition offer needs an organisation with specific technical FE expertise.
“We judged that there are a relatively small number of suppliers who would be able to deliver the contract and the DPS allows those with the relevant experience to bid for it.”
She told FE Week the department wishes to restrict the operational information within the tender document to the relevant organisations registered to bid for this contract, and that revealing the anticipated value of the contract could prejudice commercial negotiations.
The spokesperson added that the DPS is a legitimate route to market for public sector bodies as set out under the Public Contract Regulations 2015.
Suppliers can self-register on to the DPS against categories of work that they are able to deliver, of which there are 20.
The DfE then selects one or more categories of work that will be required to deliver a particular procurement and “launch” the tender.
The spokesperson was able to tell FE Week that the transition offer contract will run from May 2019 to September 2021.
The T-level transition offer needs an organisation with specific technical FE expertise
The winning bidder will support the phased implementation of the T-level transition offer in 2020 and 2021.
The course was recommended by Lord Sainsbury in his technical education report in July 2016, which the government’s post-16 skills plan then adopted at the same time.
The DfE was supposed to then carry out further work and consultation on this transition year “over the next six months”.
But further information on this hasn’t been forthcoming until this tender.
The winning bidder will be a single supplier and provide support for “participating post-16 providers to develop, package and deliver their local T-level transition offer”, which will be a type of 16-to-19 study programme, rather than a qualification in its own right.
They will also “encourage and facilitate participating providers to explore different approaches to implementing certain elements of the transition offer”.
The first three T-levels, which will be delivered from 2020 by 50 providers, will be in education and childcare pathway, design, surveying and planning, and digital production, design and development.