'Inadequate' Learndirect stopped from taking new apprentices

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Learndirect, the biggest provider of childcare apprenticeships, has had its Government funding withdrawn after it was found to be inadequate by Ofsted.

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Learndirect says it has over 4,000 childcare learners

The training provider was inspected in March, although its inspection report has only just been published as Learndirect had obtained an injunction against its publication. This was lifted by the High Court on Monday.

In its inspection report Ofsted says that, ‘Not enough learners and apprentices achieve their qualifications and develop the skills to enable them to progress at work or into further education and training.’

It also finds, ‘Too few adult learners secure employment when they leave Learndirect’, and ‘Too many apprentices receive insufficient training to develop new skills, and they do not receive enough off-the-job training.’

Learndirect, which claims to be the largest provider of childcare apprenticeships in the country, says on its website that it has more than 4,000 childcare learners and has worked with more than 5,000 childcare settings across England.

The training provider delivers provision directly and through 54 subcontractors: 24 of the subcontractors provide apprenticeships and traineeships, and 30 provide adult learning programmes.

Among childcare providers that use/have used Learndirect are Snapdragons Nurseries, Cherubs Day Nursery - a group of 11 settings, Beehive Nursery and Cheeky Monkeys Nursery in Nuneaton.

The Co-op group, believed to incude the Co-operative Childcare, uses Learndirect. It is also believed that Parenta uses the training provider. Both the Co-operative Childcare and Parenta were contacted for a response, but neither provided a comment.

Following Learndirect’s inadequate rating from Ofsted, the Department for Education (DfE) has confirmed it will ‘gradually wind down’ Learndirect’s funding for adult education courses by next July and has stopped it taking on new apprentices.

The training provider has now been removed from the Register of Apprenticeship Training and Providers (RoATP).

Typically, providers in receipt of Government funding that are found to be inadequate by Ofsted are given a three-month termination notice from the Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). However, the DfE told Nursery World the notice period can be longer in certain circumstances.

The DfE said a decision had been made to gradually wind down the Adult Education Budget (AEB) contract rather than immediately terminate it in order to protect both learners and users of Learndirect Ltd’s ‘essential public services’.

A DfE spokesperson said, 'We are creating a world-class technical education system and already have the highest number of apprentices on record. We are determined to build on that success and where providers are failing to meet the required standards it is right that action is taken. 

'We are working with Learndirect, and employers to put safeguards in place and ensure no apprentices lose out as a result of the contract ending.'

However, it is unclear whether Learndirect could continue to receive funding for apprentices beyond July 2018 under its new company Learndirect Apprenticeships Ltd, which was started last year and was not included in March's inspection. Learndirect Apprenticeships Ltd has successfully applied to the Register of Apprenticeship Training and Providers.

The DfE was unable to provide confirmation.

Learndirect was contacted for a comment, but did not respond.

Mark Dawes, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), said, ‘If special treatment has been given, then the Government must be clear about what it is and whether in future it will apply to all providers whatever their size. Protection of the interests of current learners may be a sound motive for adopting this approach but not if the quality of provision is poor. There are a large number of high quality providers ready to take on the affected learners and potentially offer them an improved learning experience.’

A spokesperson for AELP continued, ‘AELP has for many years maintained a clear and consistent line on providers who have been judged to be grade 4 overall.  The line is that all of these providers, whether a college or an independent provider and of whatever size, should be treated equitably by the ESFA.  

‘Traditionally grade 4 [inadequate] colleges have been allowed to carry on delivering courses subject to taking action in response to the support mechanisms put in place whereas independent training providerss used to have all their contracts immediately and automatically terminated. In response to AELP representations on what we regarded was an unfair approach, there have been recent examples of independent training providers being given the opportunity to put their house in order. 

‘We do however support the Government’s policy that any provider judged grade 4 for apprenticeships should not be on RoATP and therefore should not be able to deliver apprenticeships while the grade still applies.  AELP is currently in discussion with the ESFA on the latter’s approach to intervention in the event of a provider failure or inadequate judgement that leads to withdrawal of contracts. We want to ensure better processes and smoother transitional arrangements in the case of future failures with primary aim of securing the best outcomes for affected apprentices and other learners.’

Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said, 'We hope the Government has listened to our call to step in and protect trainees and apprentices in the short term, but in the long term it still leaves serious questions about the provision of training, as well as how we got into this position in the first place.

'This is why ministers should take direct control now, to make sure the service is protected and restored to its previous high standards. 

'The Ofsted report is just the latest evidence of the damage done by Government cuts, privatisation and falling investment. It’s time for a different approach, which is why Labour would invest in genuinely high-quality technical and adult education, with free lifelong learning for all, so that people can re-skill and re-train throughout their lives.'

Learndirect was privatised by David Cameron's coalition government in 2011 and is 65 per cent owned by Lloyds Development Capital, the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank.

Joe Dromey, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said the owners of Learndirect had some ‘very serious questions to answer.’

‘It appears that they have raked in vast amounts of public money, extracted tens of millions of pounds from Learndirect, loaded the company with debt, overseen a catastrophic decline in standards, and tried to stop the truth coming out.

‘This should be investigated by the Public Accounts Committee, and if Learndirect goes down, Government should seek urgently to reclaim as much public funding as possible from their irresponsible owners.’

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