The ongoing debacle that is the tender process for apprenticeship funding allocations for providers working with non-levy employers is beyond frustrating for our business.
After extended delays, and then an aborted first attempt, we have now been informed the second try by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) has been 'postponed'.
Until a decision is made on whether our tender has been successful we are unable to plan ahead and operate our business with confidence.
It's a nightmare.
The ESFA has told training providers like ourselves that more time is needed to evaluate the ‘high volume’ of applications and is unable to say when the results of the £650m tender round will be known.
The message, sent via the tendering website, says: “The Agency has been pleased to receive a high volume of tenders following a very positive response to the Invitation to Tender for this procurement, and is currently finalising the evaluation process.
“The intention to issue award notifications to successful and unsuccessful Potential Providers is postponed, and will not now be issued on 21 November 2017.
“Potential Providers will be contacted again shortly with further information on the new date for the issue of award notifications.”
The fact that we haven't been given an actual date is extremely annoying...but it's hardly surprising.
From the outset the tender process was controversial for its timing, complexity and volume of information required and has apparently led to providers submitting nearly 1,000 official clarification requests from those taking a crack at getting their hands on the up to £650m available over the 15 months between January 2018 and March 2019.
The ESFA set tough scoring thresholds: if any part of a tender application is incorrect or insufficiently answered, the agency will not hesitate to reject it.
The tender document came with nine attachments - some of which were revised several times - and was extremely complex and time-consuming to complete - the FAQ document alone ran into 5,000 words.
In fact, the ESFA more than doubled the amount of information it required from applicants, deterring many providers from even bothering to apply.
Across 17 mandatory questions, we were expected to write more than 10,000 words regardless of the size of the contract being applied for.
Then there was the 'volumes and values' spreadsheet which, ironically, does not even calculate funding. We had to do that ourselves. It contained up to 2,400 cells to complete, quite ridiculous.
There has been a multitude of hoops to jump through.
What's even more shocking is that even if you are successful the ESFA reserves the right to reduce every successful tender in order to stay within the overall 'funding envelope'.
This means if your winning tender value has fallen below the £200,000 minimum you receive nothing.
Even if you were to successfully apply for, say, £300,000, the ESFA reserves the right reduce this to below £200,000 via 'modelling', in cases where it wants to prioritise a region or sector area, or simply if it faces general over-subscription. The upshot is still being awarded no funding.
The ESFA needs to get it's act together double-quick and issue award notifications to our, and other, businesses.
This waiting game is a Sword of Damocles hanging over all our heads.