Andy Cheshire looks at Subcontracting

Subcontracting of apprenticeship provision is a hot topic at the moment. @AELP, @OFSTEDnews, @feweek and others have weighed into the debate and @ESFAgov have just published guidance on practical examples of policy application. The guidance tells us that “Employers…want the choice to be able to…work only with one provider, with the expectation that the provider will manage a network of subcontractors”.

Is that really true? The employers I come into contact with are more concerned with the overall quality of delivery rather than working with one training provider who will somehow be able to find and manage a sub-contract pool to deliver all training from Management to Skills to Business Improvement and all in between. The risk is that we could just replace some of the FE college primes who top-sliced without offering anything back (not true with the one we worked with) with private providers who do exactly the same. Of course, that does not mean (as with other supply chain solutions) that it would not be beneficial for the employer to just have a few relationships with lead providers, this would balance the demands of quality and management.

The debate on how much of the fee should be retained has also become polarised with 20% seen as a best practice maximum. Again, this seems to be wrong place to start the debate, and somewhat irrelevant. The employer should work with all parties – the prime, the subcontractor(s) (yes – they should meet the subcontractors and know them!) to agree a quality delivery, IQA and management solution and then apportionment of monies should follow from that. The market (in the long term) will develop best solutions but that does not mean that mistakes will not be made along the way – putting hard guidance in the funding rules on percentage retention would be a retrograde step which would stifle innovation.

I would furthermore argue that subcontracting as a term is part of the problem. In the same way that subordinate is seen as a poor label for an employee, subcontracting implies to me that somehow the service being offered is perhaps below what a provider could provide themselves. A much better way to label the relationship could be a ‘partner-provider’, which would mirror the term applied to ’employer-provider’ and elevate the status of all providers involved in the relationship – maybe we’ll see that in the next version of the funding rules