Nick Linford, Managing Director, Lsect Karl Bentley, Lead Auditor, RSM Tenon Mike Davis, Principal Officer, Ofsted

Subcontracting arrangements are worrying Ofsted “big time”, according to Mike Davis HMI, the regulator’s principal officer of further education (FE) colleges.

Speaking at the Lsect Spring College Data Conference, in London, Mr Davis said Ofsted was concerned with the growth in subcontracting throughout the FE sector.

Mr Davis said: “What does it look like and where are we going with that?

“We’re thinking about this very, very carefully.”

He later added: “We are very worried.”

Karl Bentley, lead funding auditor at RSM Tenon, followed Mr Davis onto the platform and shared some tough love advice on subcontracting.

As part of his presentation Mr Bentley said general FE colleges need to start asking subcontractors much more difficult questions as part of due diligence.

He said: “Due diligence is not collecting a load of paperwork and sticking it in a lever arch file.

“Due diligence is when you actually look at that paperwork and check that you are satisfied with it.”

Mr Bentley questioned delegates about how they carried out due diligence on subcontractors, as well as how much of their own digging they did regarding the firm’s track record with previous prime/lead providers.

He also stressed that more staff needed to start visiting subcontractors for themselves in order to see if they were operating correctly.

At the end of the day it’s public money and if it all goes belly up, you guys will get it in the neck”

“It’s actually going out there, getting off your backside, going into those buildings and having a look at stuff.”

He added that the most important tactic colleges could use was to make sure they didn’t “believe the hype” or any of the “propaganda” offered by some subcontractors.

“Do your due diligence properly and ask those difficult questions. That’s all you can do…just don’t believe the hype.” Mr Bentley said.

He later added: “If someone comes in and they absolutely believe their own propaganda, saying ‘we’re brilliant, we’ve got these massive success rates, and we’ve got this and that’.

“Start asking a few more difficult questions and see how much they squirm – if they can answer the questions well brilliant, fine.

“The auditor will be happy as well because you’ve done your proper due diligence.”

The data conference provided lots of opportunity to ask questions 

Mr Bentley also made the point that as an auditor he typically only sees the subcontracting arrangements that have gone wrong.

Nick Linford, managing director of Lsect, managing editor of FE Week and the conference chair, agreed with Mr Bentley and said it was the duty of college data staff to examine the data from subcontractors and watch out for any warning signs.

Mr Linford said: “Often you will know, as individuals, that when you see the data and you suddenly get 100 enrolment forms from standing start that things don’t seem right.

“In a sense you are partly there with your experience I would say to provide those warning signals to the senior managers. You are in quite a privileged position and you can often spot those first signs.”

Mr Bentley warned that the repercussions of poor subcontracting arrangements were not to be taken lightly.

An additional screen projected a twitter fountain, publishing live comments and thoughts from delegates and non-attendees that tweeted with the hash-tag #lsect

“At the end of the day it’s public money and if it all goes belly up, you guys will get it in the neck,” Mr Bentley said.

“You get it in the neck because the SFA will come along, or the YPLA, and take all of their money off you and then you’re left to try and get your money off your partners through the courts.”

The Lsect Spring Data Conference included a morning session by Lisa Macdougall, data specification manager at the Information Authority (IA).

This included a summary of the key changes to the 2012/13 Individualised Learner Record (ILR), which has no flat file ILR specification for 2012/13 and no conversion facility in the Learner Information Suite (LIS).

Other changes to the ILR include the removal of three fields and the addition of two new fields, including one for higher education (HE), as well as new codes in the learner funding and monitoring for learner support and 19+ discretionary support funds.

Due diligence is not collecting a load of paperwork and sticking it in a lever arch file”

Lisa Mcdougall also used the conference to explain the approach to funding and data collection for the 2013/14 academic year.

The goal, she said, would be to deliver less burdensome data collection as a result of simplified funding, with an annual drive to remove fields in the ILR.

Other speakers at the event included Ellie Frazier, data quality and assurance manager at the Data Service, who looked at how the current data systems would be supported for the final year of the existing funding methodology, as well as how they would be changed for the 2013/14 ‘roll-over’.

Carole Morley, head of development and support at the Learning Records Service, was quick to highlight the improvements to the LRS Organisation Portal and promote the 14.5 million Unique Learner Numbers (ULN) issued during her morning presentation.

However, delegates tweeted using the hash tag ‘#Lsect’ to voice their concerns on the conference Twitter fountain.

Rob Elliot (@capitafhe) tweeted: “14.5m ULN’s create but how many learners are actively accessing their PLR’s?”

Rob Clark (@rjclarkcapita) added: “My better half enrolled at local #FurtherEd College and asked me ‘what’s a ULN?’ – is there a problem in awareness?”

Exhibitors at the event included Capita, the Data Service, Corero, the Information Authority, Drake Lane Associates and Perspectives.

Delegates had the chance to network at the venue, discuss the presentations with one another and speak with exhibitors at length about their products or services.

The Grand Connaught Rooms in London hosted the Lsect Spring College Data Conference, which was fully-booked and attended by 180 staff eager for news on changes to college data and funding

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