Learndirect, the largest commercial provider of further education (FE) was rated Inadequate in March 2017*. Nevertheless, it will still receive Government money totalling nearly £95m to fulfil contracts for 2017/18, a National Audit Office report reveals. / (See here for FE Week summary)
Ofsted found ‘risks’ surrounding Learndirect’s apprenticeship delivery programme as early as 2015 but these concerns didn’t result in inspection.
In March 2016, Learndirect’s risk rating was changed from ‘amber’ to ‘red’. Ofsted decided to inspect Learndirect in the autumn but this was deferred after Learndirect said it was negotiating the sale of its apprenticeship business – a sale which didn’t in the end go through. Learndirect was eventually inspected a year later.
Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was, ‘concerned’ about Ofsted’ long-delayed inspection of Learndirect.
The NAO reported that the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) had downgraded Learndirect’s financial rating from satisfactory to inadequate in late 2015.
For two years, then, ESFA and Ofsted both knew about Learndirect’s problems. Nevertheless, ESFA concluded in May 2017 that continuing to fund Learndirect for 2017/18 would ‘best meet the interests of learners’ who would be able to ‘complete their courses with minimal disruption’ while the company wound down.
The NAO said between 2015 and August 2017, Ofsted had judged 26 FE providers aside from Learndirect. ESFA had ended contracts of 23 with up to three months' notice. The other three were given notice of between four and six months.
It appears Learndirect was given special treatment. This would have required ministerial approval but it’s not known which minister rubber stamped the decision. Instead, Peter Lauener, the outgoing ESFA chief, told PAC in October he was responsible.
PAC’s chair asked Lauener if Learndirect ‘was too big to fail’. Lauener said no. And Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, denied Learndirect was given special treatment.
Learndirect said it had ‘worked closely with ESFA and Ofsted’ to ensure provision continued to improve. It said Ofsted monitoring had found ‘significant improvements’.
But monitoring wasn’t as positive as Learndirect claims. Ofsted recognised the company had made efforts to improve but said ‘too many apprentices, both at subcontractors and on directly delivered provision, continue to experience frequent changes to their assessors, so fail to make good progress or develop their skills and knowledge.’
The Government is trying to push apprenticeships as an alternative to university but the Learndirect debacle could deter young people from taking them up. The Government should rethink how it’s going to deliver high-quality apprenticeships and not rely on outsourcing to commercial companies especially when they in turn outsource provision.
*The report wasn’t published until August after a judicial review foiled Learndirect’s attempt to quash the report and the removal of a gagging order which had prevented FE Week from publishing the story.