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ESFA accused of ‘hidden agenda’ as AEB providers reveal ‘horrendous’ bid rejections

From FE Week:

The government has been accused of using the adult education budget tender process to “manoeuvre its hidden agenda” of shrinking the private provider market – as leaders spoke out about “horrendous” bid rejections.

Several long-running providers told FE Week they were left “infuriated” after their applications were denied owing to “missing” documents that were in fact attached. Others were rejected for using abbreviated words that are typically used in procurements.

Another was rejected because one of the many documents requested was corrupted, others cross-referenced near-identical bids which received completely different outcomes, and many were denied full marks despite receiving “ridiculously” positive feedback.

The providers, some of which are now being forced to close, believe this was the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s (ESFA’s) first step in slashing the independent training provider market, which was described as “crowded” in this year’s FE white paper.

A few providers considered launching legal challenges but decided against the action owing to costs.

Results for the heavily delayed national adult education budget (AEB) procurement were finally communicated to the sector in mid-June – just two weeks before contracts commenced.

In total £74 million was allocated, which was down by a fifth on the £92 million in the last AEB tender from 2017.

FE Week analysis shows the number of private providers with a direct ESFA AEB contract has now shrunk by almost 60 per cent, from 208 to 88. In total, 581 providers submitted bids.

Half (44) of the 88 winners did not previously hold a procured AEB contract with the ESFA. Of these, 14 did not hold any contract with the agency last year and have never been inspected by Ofsted.

ESFA claims bid marking was ‘fair’

After being shown the provider complaints by FE Week, the ESFA said the procurement was a “fair and open competition” and maintained that all bids were “assessed in line with the published evaluation criteria and methodology”.

It added that the agency had “communicated our intention” to have “fewer, larger direct ESFA-funded AEB contracts at market engagement events in January 2021 and as part of the invitation to tender”.

The ESFA claims that by having fewer, larger contracts, providers will be “better able to support the quality of the learning, dedicating funding to the front line, rather than management costs and maximising the opportunity that AEB offers learners as they progress to higher-level qualifications and employment”.

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