Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 619)

WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2002

MR PADDY DOYLE, MR SIMON PILLING AND MS DENYSE METCALF

  600. I have to.
  (Ms Metcalf) I beg your pardon. I meant in terms of looking at an individual case. What is important to understand is how that particular instance arose and whether it is an instance people can piggyback on. There can be an isolated instance of abuse, but there can be an instance of abuse where if you stop it on case number one, you actually prevent the following several hundred cases. You cannot afford to say it is going to cost £300 to clear an abuse of £200, therefore you are not going to do it, because that £200 is just one case and as we found with the ILA, it was such a large scheme that relatively small amounts of money soon multiplied up to large amounts. We would look more at understanding the nature of how it occurred and preventing it for the future rather than saying it is not cost effective to do it at that single point.

Mr Turner

  601. I am confused about the contractual position. Are you expecting to be engaged in the next scheme? Do you know you are going to be engaged? Is there no question of you being engaged? I got different messages from Mr Doyle and Ms Metcalf.
  (Mr Doyle) As far as the next scheme is concerned, we have not been told that there is absolutely no way that we will be involved in the next scheme. That is a definite. As far as our involvement is concerned, we have not been told. That is a definite. We are working away. We would hope to be involved in the next scheme, but we have to prove our worth and that we are going to add value to the next scheme.

Chairman

  602. We do not want to improve your share value which I see from the Financial Times is doing all right for the moment, but with regard to my original question as to why you are not battering down the door saying "Come on. Fix this", would it not be good for you to go in there knocking on the door?
  (Mr Doyle) Of course it would. I tried to say that earlier on. I said that it would be good for all of us and from Capita's point of view first and foremost we do not find ourselves in this situation very often, thank goodness, otherwise our share price would not be as healthy as it is. We are embarrassed to be in this position. We want to work as hard as we possibly can to get it out there now. First and foremost that is about getting an ILA 2 scheme out there which everybody can be proud of and which works very well. Secondly, to us as a company, of course there will be nothing better for our credibility in the marketplace than to be a part of that scheme and to show that we can do what we set out to do.

Mr Turner

  603. I got the impression that you were going soft on your criticism of the detail of the scheme at our last hearing because you had an eye on your future contractual relationship with the DfES.
  (Mr Doyle) No, I do not think that is right. We were not going soft on it because of that. The DfES is a customer of ours and we work very closely with them.

  604. So it is because they are a customer that you were going soft on them.
  (Mr Doyle) I do not think I was going soft on them at all. It was not for me to go soft on them or not. We find ourselves in a difficult situation and as I tried to explain last time nobody set out when we pushed off on this scheme thinking this was going to be a disaster. Nobody started there. We would not have started if we felt that. As the thing went on, we went through nine months when things were looking very good and we lose that now. For nine months certain decisions were taken by the Department, which we were concerned about at that time and we shared those concerns. For nine months they were right and we were wrong.

  605. It seems to me that from the evidence you gave last time you were here you felt that the learndirect relationship was a means of accrediting providers and Ms Metcalf has now spoken about the need for pre-accreditation of providers as a means of quality control. Yet Mr Healey's evidence yesterday was that learndirect is not an accreditation process, it is not a quality control process, it is just a process for getting names into a hat. Which of those is correct?
  (Mr Doyle) We have a difference of opinion and that happens. There was no difference of opinion in that there was always an intention. learndirect was an example of a way in which we could get some kind of method of finding that we had bona fide providers coming through onto the system. That was always our belief. We believed that was part of the original specification and I believe the Department believed that as well. Where the difference of opinion comes in is that we actually believed that would help get accredited suppliers into the system. The Department believed that would not, that it was a weak way of doing it. We were concerned about that and we put actions in progress to monitor what was happening around learning providers. For probably the first nine months of running the scheme it looked as though the Department were right and it looked as though we were wrong. In the first nine months, we were getting no evidence of learning providers misbehaving or not getting the right calibre of learning providers through, the volumes were right, the level of complaint was low. It looked sensible. Unfortunately in the spring or so of last year, some learning providers seemed to cotton onto the fact that there was some gain to be had and suddenly we started to see evidence coming through that you have already seen. As soon as that happened, we picked that up, we went to the Department and they took action.

  606. Schedule 2 of the specification at MAB/P/00240 talks about bulk learning provider registration. Then at MAB/F/00250 it talks about learning provider registration which judging by the context is not bulk, in other words is individual. So you knew at the beginning, or at least you knew when you signed up to this, that there would be two processes of registration or rather you expected that but then the Department was unable to deliver on the first. Is that correct?
  (Ms Metcalf) Yes; effectively. At the outset we had thought we were going to get a database transfer in terms of numbers of existing providers and there is perhaps a tendency to confuse the database transfer, which I believe also involved learndirect as one of those and perhaps one of the FEFC databases as another one. So as ILA was launched there was a knowledge that a number of learning providers in the country, who already existed, were already on databases and one simple way of kick starting the ILA database for providers was to lift those databases across. There was an incompatibility of those databases so in fact individuals came on a direct link. I made the point last time that that was only all those providers who were in existence at the time and therefore there was a mechanism for people to come through to register individually.

  607. Indeed. I understand that. Thank you. Forgive me for moving on. The question is: how loudly did you shout to the DfEE before the delivery of the contract began about the weakness that you were placed in by the lack of any system that might be described as a pre-accreditation of providers?
  (Ms Metcalf) Timing again plays quite an important part in this. It was quite late in the timing cycle when we discovered the incompatibility of the databases. From memory, I think we are talking about May. The scheme was due to be launched in June. "Shout" is not the right term. We raised the issue with the Department and in fact it looked as though our concerns were not going to be justified. For quite some time we had this open registration approach—if I could use the word "open" carefully—but it seemed to be working. The growth of providers seemed to be sensible, there seemed to be very sensible use of the system and I suppose our concerns backed off a little because we were proved to be wrong; everything looked very, very positive and everyone seemed to be behaving in an appropriate way.

  608. Before they knew or at least thought they were right, how did the DfES respond to your shouting or your not shouting?
  (Ms Metcalf) I cannot recall the particular conversations, so I can only record it in outcome terms. They convinced us that they felt that it was not a fundamental problem.

Mr Ennis

  609. The last time you gave evidence to the Committee you were questioned about who ran the accreditation process in the Scottish scheme and you were unclear whether it was learndirect or not. Could you clarify that issue now?
  (Ms Metcalf) Yes. I believe now that it is the University for Industry for Scotland who actually run the accreditation process up there.

  610. Given that we already have an accreditation scheme running in Scotland, do you have any views in terms of how the new accreditation process should run in ILA 2 and who should be the players in that process? You seemed to be leaning towards local Learning & Skills Councils in one of your earlier replies.
  (Ms Metcalf) I put that forward as an option. What I would suggest is that it ought to be an organisation which has the skills base to make those educational quality judgements. The University for Skills in Scotland does it up there and there is an equivalent organisation in England. It could be done on a local basis. If one looks at the earlier research there was a great deal of pressure to have a local based scheme. That is something which would be outside our remit. I am simply saying that so as not to lose the flexibility of having a national ILA scheme, it is useful to have a national database, but there several possible mechanisms and it does not have to be a single universal mechanism from pre-accreditation. There might be opportunities in the public sector to use the existing framework, opportunities perhaps in the private sector for different types of organisations. I know that one of the large concerns is the distance learning organisations. It might be appropriate to have a completely different level of checking and pre-accreditation for that sort of organisation than perhaps another. That is pre-accreditation. It is important not to place the whole emphasis of quality assurance on pre-accreditation. It is one aspect of the whole quality methodology which needs to be brought into ILA 2 in terms of auditing providers and spot checks and ensuring that even though the providers themselves are checked the whole product is worthy of public sector funding.

  611. Do you have any views in terms of whether you think it should be one organisation totally involved in the accreditation process or should there be more than one organisation involved or would that create problems in keeping an eye on the new system, shall we say.
  (Ms Metcalf) First of all it is not my call to make that judgement. I would be more concerned that the output was of a sufficient standard rather than the mechanism relating to the inputs. I would be quite comfortable to know that there was a mechanism there that could be universal or selective or whatever, but that the provider reaching the database would have gone through an appropriate route, appropriate to the type of provider perhaps. One is always conscious, picking up the earlier point, that the amount of cost that goes into a scheme in administration must not outweigh the benefits of the delivery. We have within the ILA, particularly in ILA 1, the intent to broaden the education, the number of education providers, to broaden out the marketplace. It is fair to say that the sort of scrutiny one might want to apply to an existing further education college might be quite different to a very, very new distance learning provider, so perhaps we need a mechanism that encompasses that vast range of learning providers.

Valerie Davey

  612. I was interested in your earlier comment about the need to monitor the product and that element is genuinely significant and has only come out of the discussion at a later stage. It also begs the question of whether the emphasis in the original specification and your administration of it was leaving more to the openness to get more providers in or more to extending the range of the learners. Where do you think the balance lay originally in those two very important concepts?
  (Ms Metcalf) I am not sure I can answer that one at all. Both were seen as objectives. To widen the involvement of individuals in education was a clear objective and in particular in terms of technology, which is why the balance in terms of the funding went towards those technology and mathematics courses but also there is a recognition that to do that, to broaden the breadth of individuals coming into education, there might need to be new mechanisms and therefore new providers. I have no notion of the balance.

  613. Do new mechanisms inevitably mean new providers?
  (Ms Metcalf) Not necessarily; I suppose not.

  614. Where was the research done? Are you aware where the research was done to back up these concepts?
  (Ms Metcalf) No, I am not.

  615. The element I am still concerned about is how we match the needs of the broader based learning group with the quality product they actually need. How do we match on the ground? You have a national database and I think that is right. I think people ought to be able to go nationally to a database of providers. We are widening the incoming learners. Who is going to match the quality product that the wider range of providers is giving with the needs of this group of learners whom we have now accepted and you have accepted this morning may need more help than the scheme originally anticipated?
  (Ms Metcalf) That is one of the issues the Department have been considering. All we can do is conjecture in the sense that a number of bodies have been involved in discussions about quality products and about the quality of education delivery. There are several mechanisms which could facilitate this such as the national database, focusing in on complaints, producing management information which allows for targeting of audit. Who carries out those audits, who would carry out spot checks on new providers, that is something very much in the Department's court in terms of the decision.

  616. And in your experience would need to be localised rather than national.
  (Ms Metcalf) Localised is an opportunity, but it would work equally well nationally. What is important is that the dialogue is there, so that you can focus either through complaints or simply a rolling programme of management audit on where you would go. I have simply suggested that in a risk register approach there are some organisations one might want to visit more frequently. Certainly as one looked at the registration mechanisms you could highlight those organisations and therefore you could provide whatever third party with the sort of data that gives them a nice rolling programme of audits at the right sort of frequency levels to balance the risk with the universality of the offering.

Chairman

  617. The Scottish scheme allows you to get help and advice in choosing your course. That was not allowed in the English system. You were working for the Scottish scheme. Did you never suggest that it would be good to carry over to the other two areas where you were working in England and Northern Ireland?
  (Ms Metcalf) I am a little embarrassed but I might need to pick you up on that. Through Learning Skills the individual could get advice about their courses and could get information about their course. That was one of the areas that even in England did work. The difference between the two systems was the pre-accreditation issue, not the availability of access to information by individuals. If a provider were registered in England and had registered their courses, then individuals could ring up learndirect, get some information about a course and they automatically dropped through to the ILA. For courses which were registered there by providers who happened to be registered they could get information. It was not a universal database, so you could be a member of an ILA scheme where the provider was not registered with learndirect. I am sorry if that is not terribly clear.

  618. That is interesting. We will check that. The information which came to us was that the schemes in Scotland and England were distinct in that case.
  (Ms Metcalf) The Scottish scheme was more universal in that all were registered, whereas in England not all providers were registered and therefore the facility was limited to those that were.

Mr Chaytor

  619. May I ask again about the quality processes and the monitoring of quality? From the documentation we have, there seems to have been an annual quality review at the end of the first year of the contract and then quarterly reviews, then monthly reviews. We have a sample of one of the monthly reviews here. What happened to those reviews? When Capita produced the monthly review what then happened, what discussions took place and what action took place following that?
  (Ms Metcalf) There was an annual review which was undertaken by the Department. We never saw the final report from that annual review.


 
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