Education & Family

Heads of the government's apprentice schemes resign

David Cameron meets young apprentices Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The government has put increasing emphasis on apprenticeships to help tackle youth unemployment

The chief executives leading the government's multi-billion pound apprenticeship schemes have both announced they are to step down.

Geoff Russell will leave his position heading up the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) in the summer.

The SFA has faced accusations of misuse of public money by training providers and an inquiry is to start next month.

Mr Russell's departure coincides with the resignation of Simon Waugh, head of the National Apprenticeship Service.

Both men in charge of the government's multi-billion pound apprenticeship schemes announced their departures on the same day.

Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency which is in charge of handling the government's skills budget, said that he had informed the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) of his plans in August, but agreed to stay on in the post for a year.

Mr Russell stated that having "completed his task" of setting up the SFA, "it is time to move on" and "return to retirement".

However, a private letter seen by the BBC from Mr Russell to skills minister John Hayes, sent in May 2011, warned that the misuse of public funds was "likely to increase in the context of funding challenges and greater levels of sub-contracting."

Simultaneously, the chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) Simon Waugh announced he would be leaving his post, citing his wish to spend more time with his family.

NAS has responsibility for promoting apprenticeships to employers and increasing the numbers taking part in programmes.

"I have achieved all that I set out to do when I joined NAS, and after the considerable success of the past three years I believe that this is a good time to move on," Mr Waugh said in a statement.

'Unexpected' resignations

Commenting on the news, shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden MP said that the simultaneous announcement was "unexpected" and "was bound to raise serious questions and concerns in the sector as to the future delivery of apprenticeships".

"It's curious that if BIS were informed by Geoff Russell of his intentions last August, one might have expected in view of the importance of the role to have some form of successor in place," he told the BBC.

In a statement, a BIS spokesperson said: "Geoff Russell and Simon Waugh made their decisions independently and for different and personal reasons. Both planned to make the announcements together to ensure that staff and the sector were provided with the full picture.

"As a result of their work the government's apprenticeship programme has achieved real success - including record numbers of apprenticeships and the introduction of new standards to guarantee quality."

Apprenticeship quality review

However, the resignations on Monday came after a series of criticisms over the way public funds are being spent on apprenticeship provision, including the fact that money was being ploughed into apprenticeships lasting just twelve weeks.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Around 2,000 teenagers began a football coaching course which many were unable to complete

Skills minister John Hayes announced in December 2011 that there would be a review into the quality and duration of all apprenticeships schemes, and a major select committee inquiry is also under way.

The National Apprenticeship Service confirmed that 45 colleges and training providers were currently being looked at as part of the quality review.

"These two [reviews] will have bearing on the current situation," Mr Marsden told the BBC.

A recent investigation by the BBC's 5 live Investigates programme provided yet more criticism, revealing how one scheme which promised to train teenagers as football coaches swallowed £6 million of taxpayers' money and left thousands of those taking part without a qualification.

Luis Michael Training (LMT) was run by ex-professional footballers Mark Aizlewood and Paul Sugrue, but had its contract with further education colleges terminated due to what the colleges termed "irregularities."

The BBC heard from young people who were enrolled but who did not know they were taking part in an apprenticeship scheme, and others who were not paid despite being entitled to a weekly wage.

Some of those signed-up for the coaching scheme were ineligible as they were already in full-time education.

The LMT scheme also signed up hundreds of Welsh learners, who were also ineligible because the SFA only funds residents of England.

Speaking on the 5 live Investigates programme, chairman of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills select committee Adrian Bailey said that this apprenticeship scheme was "probably the worst example of a series of scandals that does seem to be emerging across a whole range of businesses and obviously makes the proposed investigation by my select committee more relevant than ever."

The Select Committee is due to start an inquiry into apprenticeships and the role of the NAS next month.

BIS told the BBC that when problems are highlighted it will continue to act quickly to drive improvement, and if providers fail to improve, funding will be will withdrawn.

You can listen to 5 live Investigates on Sundays at 21:00 GMT on BBC 5 live. Listen to the full programme via the 5 live website or by downloading the 5 live Investigates podcast.

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