Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Spencer.)
Mr Speaker, what long hours you have been working today. I have an important issue to raise. It is relevant to my constituency and the Minister is well aware of it, and I suggest to the Minister that it has wider resonance beyond my constituency. It is one example, although not isolated, of a significant problem that afflicts further education and the use of sports academies.
In January 2015, the Worksop Guardian ran a report on its website—it was later in the newspaper and on the local football club’s website—that outlined how a football academy was to be established in Worksop by Doncaster College, in partnership with Worksop Town football club. The report stated:
“Worksop Town hope to give local youngsters a future in football or guide them into further education, through their new Football Academy.”
It went on:
“Students will combine daily training sessions and matches with classroom studies, under the watchful eye of teaching staff from Doncaster College.”
The academy would offer academic qualifications, the possibility of going on to study at university, and perhaps a scholarship to America, with level 1, 2 or 3 BTEC sports diplomas, worth up to three A-levels, for each participant. According to the paper, Mr Russ Horsley, the sports academy development manager at Doncaster College, called it an exciting partnership
“in line with our new academy of sport”
founded by Doncaster College.
Unfortunately, having made this great announcement, Doncaster College did not fulfil that commitment to establish a football academy with Worksop Town football club, although the community and I discovered that only some years later. Instead, the contract went via another college, the College of West Anglia, which, at the time and throughout the existence of the academy, neither I nor anybody else in my constituency, or anybody connected with Worksop and Worksop Town football club, had any knowledge of or indeed had even heard of. The college subcontracted to a company called GEMEG whose director was one Russell Horsley, the major shareholder and company secretary since he formed the company in 2011. That is the same Russell Horsley who was the sports development manager at Doncaster College who had announced the initial partnership.
The Minister should be aware that the local further education college—known as North Notts College at the time—tried particularly hard to get in on the act and run this football academy with the local football club, but it was told in no uncertain terms that there was a better deal with Doncaster College. Despite my interventions on behalf of my local college, we were rebuffed and told that this was a perfect relationship.
What transpired was not quite what had been promised. The College of West Anglia was not known to us. It had previously had a relationship in a sports location called Gresham, near West Bridgford, just by the city of Nottingham. It was around an hour from my constituency—about 50 miles away. It was a place that none of my constituents had ever visited and a place that I had never heard of until I discovered that, apparently, the young trainees of the academy from Worksop were all at Gresham for the first six months of their £168,000 Government-funded course. I was able to demonstrate very quickly, within minutes, that zero of my constituents had ever visited Gresham. Most had never visited Nottingham. None of them had heard of the College of West Anglia. Their course had been in Worksop, and yet the College of West Anglia claimed—and has claimed right up to this year—that these students were being trained in Nottingham.
According to West Anglia, during a visit on 8 February 2016, no learners or staff were present. This cannot be a surprise because no learners had ever visited this establishment, yet the college, having taken £168,000 in Government money, was maintaining that it was delivering, through a subcontractor, this fantastic course in Gresham. With all the standards required, it said that it was guaranteeing the health and safety and the quality of the teaching and the output, but this never actually took place; it was a fiction, a fantasy. There were, of course, zero health and safety assessments, and zero quality assessment of what was going on in Worksop, which, suffice it to say, was not a success. This course cost £168,000 and nobody completed it—nobody, not a single student. The students had a bit of a view on it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the House. Does he not agree that this case highlights very clearly the importance of accountability and traceability of public funds? May I congratulate him on the important, vital and creditable work that he has done in bringing this scandal to light?
What was the College of West Anglia doing with £168,000 of taxpayers’ money? Well, I can tell the House what it was not doing. It was not funding food for any of the trainees, who were expected to pay
“£3 a day for food at a pub”.
That was part of the course for every trainee every day. The trainees were also required to pay “£70 for training kit”. They were not assessed for bursaries. Now, I have met a lot of these students. I know my constituents; I have looked at their addresses. I know that most of them would have got a bursary. A girl with dyslexia would have got a good bursary under disability discrimination provisions. But they could not get a bursary because they were not assessed for one. Some should have received free meals, but they were not assessed for free meals.
The students should have been given the equipment they required to carry out the course, but they were charged for the training kit and were required to buy their own computers to take into a classroom. But it was not a classroom. In fact, this was a further subcontract because Worksop Town’s ground and clubhouse—known to the fans as “the bar”—in which this course took place is subcontracted from another organisation. So the College of West Anglia subcontracts to a company called GEMEG, which partly subcontracts to Worksop Town football club, which subcontracts part of the facility from another outfit and pays £2,800 for the privilege of doing so.
No travel costs were paid, unlike many other colleges with bursaries, so these young 16-year-olds had to pay to travel. One verified to me that travel was £5 a day. Another wrote to say:
“We never had set times to start and finish.”
“I coached in schools and didn’t get paid.”
Coached in schools? Well, hang on a minute. Where is the safeguarding in the 12 primary schools where these students were expected to coach? These students have been put at theoretical risk for the rest of their lives for any claim that could be brought against them.
The schools were also at risk because they had no idea. Many thought they were paying a company called Tiger Enterprises, owned by the manager of their local Worksop Town football club. It was Tiger Enterprises that received the fine for non-attendance, paid by cheque by one of the participants. So hang on a minute—the College of West Anglia has £168,000 of taxpayers’ money, and one of its students is charged £100, which goes to a private company owned solely by the manager of the local football club, for non-attendance at the College of West Anglia course. Somebody is owed some money here—some of these students, who have some protections under the law. But the law does not really seem to have applied to them when it came to this course, this college and its actions.
Section 7 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 puts a requirement on the college for the general wellbeing of children. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 also puts a requirement on the college, but it did not even know the location of these young people. It did not know that these young people were going into primary schools—untrained and without insurance—to coach four and five-year-olds in football.
This is a shambles and a scandal. My constituents were put at risk and none of them got qualifications. Other people made money. Worksop Town managed to get £20,726 out of the £168,000 as its share of the loot for what it was providing in some way. Yet the community sports ground that provided the facility required in the course for the playing of sport is still owed over £5,000 to this very day. The College of West Anglia, having failed to deliver a course that provided any real qualifications, having received £168,000 of taxpayers’ money, having failed to address safeguarding, health and safety, or quality control of any kind, and having not even known which part of Nottinghamshire, 50 miles out, these young people were at, has not even paid the bill for its course to a community club run entirely, 100%, by volunteers. That is the level of the scandal.
To reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), what is going wrong when the College of West Anglia today refuses to meet me about this and refuses to pay its debt? The chair of governors and the principal say that they have dealt with the issues, but they have not dealt with the issues of this scandal whereby they used their name to rip off the taxpayer for this money, to provide no qualifications, to put my constituents at risk, to cost my constituents money, and to leave a community sports club about £6,000 out of pocket when most of the local kids’ teams are playing football in places where they are trying to raise money for toilets and changing rooms.
I want this college to pay its due moneys immediately. But I hope, as well, that the Minister will look at a system that allows this kind of scandal to arise. It would have been perfectly feasible to deliver a good course, run well, that motivated these young people and where the vast majority of them would qualify and have the chance to go on to further things, rather than the shambles faced by 23 young people in year one and an equal number in year two who did the course a month or two before it eventually collapsed, which is how I found out about it. As for those in the Football Association and the football world who have ticked every box to endorse this and allow it to happen, where on earth were they—lacking the safeguarding that is a pre-requisite to their existence? They were not there, and they have a lot of questions to answer. I hope that the Minister is going to change the system so that money from the taxpayer and from her Department—I know she was shocked about this—is never wasted in this way again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on securing this debate. As he knows, I really appreciate him raising his concerns with me about the educational provision delivered by the College of West Anglia at Worksop Town football club. We have discussed this case on several occasions, and he has taken a close interest in the investigation undertaken by the Education and Skills Funding Agency. When things go wrong, it is critical that, first, we do all we can to put them right—we cannot always do so, and we cannot turn back the clock—but equally important, as he rightly said, we need to look back and learn lessons to prevent them from happening again. He is right that this case has wider implications beyond those confined to Worksop Town football club and the College of West Anglia.
Subcontracted provision needs careful management. The ESFA allocates £5.7 billion annually to provide study programmes for young people. It is very important, as the hon. Gentleman said, that public funds are appropriated correctly with the interests of our young people protected. As he is aware—I hope he will forgive me if I mention a few things that it is quite important to put down for the record—the programme at Worksop Town football club was completed in 2016, and the College of West Anglia independently took the decision to terminate its contract with the subcontractor, GEMEG, from July 2016.
Once the concerns about the provision were brought to our attention, we commissioned an investigation, but it was the hon. Gentleman’s efforts that brought this to a head. In June 2018, we published the findings, so that all in the sector can learn the lessons of this case. The hon. Gentleman was persistent in getting to the bottom of this case. It was clear that the original ESFA draft investigation report was not as comprehensive as it should have been, and his insistence has ensured that a full and proper report has now been published.
We are clear that the arrangement between the college and the subcontractor was unacceptable. The investigation highlighted that the college needs to carry out a full review of its subcontracting controls and assurance systems and processes. That must include the college’s process for monitoring subcontractors, as well as subcontractors’ methodology for conducting enrolment, induction and initial assessment of learners.
As a result of the investigation, the College of West Anglia is barred from starting any new subcontracting arrangements for 16-to-19 learners until the ESFA is satisfied that all the proper procedures are in place. The ESFA continues to monitor progress against the college action plan, but it is not yet satisfied, and the bar on new 16-to-19 subcontracting remains in place.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions. He talked about the purchases that young people were required to make. Young people are quite vulnerable. In fact, they were not required to purchase sportswear that was not necessary for their learning programme, but the fine definition of that might well have been lost to some of them. Critically, the use of taxpayers’ money comes into question, but as important are the young people who have been let down, and sadly we cannot turn the clock back on that. The ESFA has subsequently clarified the funding rules to ensure that in future, that distinction is made clear to students who undertake studies as part of the sports academy, so that they fully understand what is and is not essential to the completion of their programme.
The hon. Gentleman raised questions about whether students received support funding to which they may have been entitled, in respect of expenses incurred. The investigation found that some students did receive payments of bursaries. However, it is clear that the College of West Anglia and GEMEG could have done a great deal more to make learners aware of funding support, in particular helping them to evidence their eligibility to make a claim.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his quest for answers, with the most serious question he raises being about the safeguarding of young people; nothing is more important. The investigation fully explored that area and was able to conclude that all teachers who worked with the learners had been CRB—now DBS—checked. No allegations of breaches of safeguarding were reported to the College of West Anglia while this provision was being delivered.
I commend the Minister for her work and her approach throughout this unhappy episode. Safeguarding does not protect the young people who are put in the position of training four or five-year-olds without having the competence or accreditation to do so. I am pleased to inform her that Nottinghamshire County Council has agreed that a gold-plated qualification on top of all existing requirements is now the aim for anyone who does sports coaching in schools in Nottinghamshire. Is that not a great step forward?
It is an important step forward, and I congratulate Nottinghamshire County Council. Safeguarding and anything to do with the training of young people should be gold-plated; it is as simple as that. Nothing less than the best will do, particularly in this day and age, when we hear of so many cases where things have gone wrong.
As a result of this case, the College of West Anglia is prevented from entering into any further subcontracting arrangements until it has provided evidence of independently verified improvements in its arrangements for control and quality assurance of subcontracting and has systematically addressed all the recommendations in the report.
This is a worrying case, and the report reached a number of conclusions highlighting areas of concern about where controls were simply completely inadequate. However, the lessons learned are being used to improve the experience for learners. The ESFA has revised its guidance and rules on subcontracting. It has also set in motion a wider review of its monitoring and enforcement of subcontracting rules across all post-16 funding. That review is due to reach its conclusions shortly, and it is already highlighting areas where we can learn lessons from such cases.
From 2019, the ESFA will introduce an annual review of subcontracting for all providers that subcontract. That will look across ESFA programmes, including 16-19 funding, the adult education budget, apprenticeships and the European social fund. It will protect students by looking for signs of non-compliance and checking with main providers that the rules are being followed. It is all very well to have rules, but one actually has to check that they are followed.
It is vital that directly funded organisations properly monitor and control all subcontracted delivery. They must ensure that safeguarding is rigorously policed, that students enjoy the same entitlements as those learning in schools and colleges, and that their education is of high quality. There are huge opportunities for young people if this is done well.
Linked to this case, the ESFA has taken the opportunity to review and strengthen the funding guidance for subcontracting and how it relates specifically to sports academies. Specifically, the rules state it is essential that the delivery of the ESFA-funded programme and the delivery of the academy or club’s activities are distinct from each other and, critically, that students understand the rules and requirements pertaining to each. The rules have been strengthened to emphasise that directly funded institutions are responsible for all aspects of provision delivered under subcontracting arrangements.
We have met the Football Association to raise concerns about the risks associated with sports academies. The ESFA continues to work with the FA to ensure that the rules outlined in the guidance to their football clubs and academies are in place for the next academic year. ESFA officials have worked with the FA and developed a quality assurance framework for football clubs, which is a big step forward, and we will continue to work with them.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his efforts to pursue this case.
The FA, at an appropriate level, has been happy to meet me, and I believe it remains happy to do so. The Minister and her officials have—I think, on six occasions—deigned to meet me and have had the joy of doing so. Does she not think it is appropriate for the College of West Anglia also to enjoy the opportunity of at least one meeting with me to discuss this situation?
I always enjoy the opportunity to meet the hon. Gentleman. In fact, I have to say to him that, as he is possibly aware, many Members of the House would perhaps have fallen at the first or second hurdle, but he persists and it is such persistence that gets results.
This is a complex situation that requires persistence and tenacity. I know that at heart what drives him is the fact that learners are being let down. That is what this is all about. It is important that we make good use of taxpayers’ money, but it is the young people who suffer if we do not get it right.
The hon. Gentleman and I have a shared commitment to seeing that all young people receive a high-quality education and are safe while they do so. I am enormously grateful for the support he has given to me and my officials. He has raised important concerns, and I hope he is happy that I echo them on behalf of the Government. The steps we have taken underline the importance we place on learning lessons from this case. Where there is Government money, there will always be people trying to get around the rules—as I said in Committee recently, there are vultures out there waiting to take that money for less effort—but I hope we can move forward, that lessons have been learned and that this is an end to this sorry tale.
Question put and agreed to.