Select Committee on Public Accounts Tenth Report

Conclusions and recommendations

The quality of Jobskills training

1.  Based on the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspection results, it appears to us that the Department's contracting process with Training Organisations has not been very effective. We also noted that the Department authorised a one year 'blanket' renewal of all existing contracts, without any review of performance. This is poor practice. Failure to link contract renewal to performance achievement sends out the wrong signal to Training Organisations and provides no incentive to improve standards.

2.  We were astonished to find that '1 in 3' trainees on Jobskills - some 4,000 young people - were in an organization or occupational area where the quality of training was below-standard. While recent data showed that the proportion has changed to '1 in 4', a below-standard training provision in 25% of training areas inspected is still much too high. The Department needs to get a grip on this and raise the standard of training in these organisations as a matter of urgency.

3.  While the Department said that it would not allow Training Organisations to persistently deliver a below-standard quality of training, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise. Despite serious shortcomings, we saw no evidence of any financial penalties or sanctions having been applied and no contracts had been terminated.

4.  One of the most damning aspects of the Department's monitoring of training quality was the extent to which there were recurrent weaknesses. Time and time again, inspections showed that the Department was being 'taken for a ride' and yet it had done virtually nothing about it. The Department must respond quickly and effectively to cases of below-standard training and send out a clear message that this will no longer be tolerated.

The effectiveness of the programme

5.  The Department's range of performance measures needs to be enhanced. It looks to us as though targets have been altered to avoid reporting poor performance. The Department must set uniform targets across each strand of the programme and ensure that all key aspects of performance are assessed and reported.

6.  We found it astonishing that the Department had not carried out regular benchmarking with similar schemes in Great Britain. We have seen this weakness before with Northern Ireland Departments and it is not acceptable. The citizens of Northern Ireland are entitled to know how the standard and cost of their public services compare with elsewhere in the United Kingdom and it is the job of the Department to facilitate this. Subtle differences between schemes is not a justification for failing to benchmark. We expect the Department to initiate a process of formal benchmarking with other regions in Great Britain, both to assess relative performance and to keep abreast of best practice, and to publish the results.

7.  The performance outcomes of a substantial proportion of Training Organisations fall significantly below the average. The Department needs to be a lot more proactive and agree action plans for improvements with individual training providers. Where targets are not met, the Department must be prepared to terminate contracts.

8.  NVQ attainment within Jobskills has been falling, following the introduction, in 1999, of six 'Key Skills'. Because the Department had not been monitoring individual Key Skills, it had not identified the main difficulties and how these might be overcome. This was a lack of basic, common sense administration. We look forward to a considerable improvement in Key Skills attainment levels in the future.

9.  One of our main areas of concern was the cost per job created by Jobskills. The evidence would suggest that the actual cost per job may be of the order of £22,000. In our view, this is excessive and represents poor value for money. We would like the Department to look closely at this issue, with a view to establishing, and subsequently reducing, the unit cost per job created.

10.  We found it disturbing that, over the life of the programme, only 40% of Access trainees—young people with a particular disadvantage—had progressed to Mainstream training. However, we note that the interim results of a pilot scheme to improve the position are encouraging. We expect to see a marked improvement across the Access strand as a whole and would like the Department to set itself a challenging target in this regard.

11.  One of the most disappointing outcomes of Jobskills is the extremely low net employment impact of the programme, which may be as little as 14%. The Department has to secure a much better return for the taxpayer. Procedures should be put in place to periodically estimate the net employment effect of Jobskills and set targets for reductions in the levels of deadweight, substitution and displacement.

12.  Almost half of all trainees who start Jobskills leave early. This is particularly undesirable in that resources are wasted and the employability of leavers is not enhanced without a qualification. We note that a preliminary review, by the Audit Office, considered that the actual cost of early leaving may be around £6 million per year. It is important that the Department establishes a reliable estimate and we have asked the C&AG to review the outcome.

13.  The high level of early leaving has seriously undermined the overall effectiveness of Jobskills and a huge amount of taxpayers' money has effectively 'gone down the drain'. What we find particularly worrying is that the level has remained relatively constant over the life of the programme. The Department must adopt a specific programme objective to tackle premature leaving and set targets for a radical reduction. We want to see a marked improvement in this area and expect the Department to attach a high priority to doing so.

The targeting of skills needs

14.  We were surprised to find that, when Jobskills was set up, job attainment was not a formally-stated objective, nor was there an objective to match training provision with the skills needs of the Northern Ireland economy. Setting appropriate objectives, with measurable targets, at the outset is essential to ensuring that a programme is focused on the key outcomes.

15.  Although, in 2000, the Department had established new objectives to align Jobskills more closely with the skills needs of the economy, it had not developed specific, measurable and time-bounded targets against which to monitor and report progress. In our view, this is the sort of fundamental good practice that any responsible body would be applying as a matter of course

16.  We found it incredible that, during the 1990s, the Department had no comprehensive data on the skills needs of the Northern Ireland economy and no clear system for forecasting and analysing those needs. This was despite the fact that it was spending over £65 million each year on Jobskills. The failure to set up an effective system to forecast and analyse skills needs was a serious omission and one that has proved detrimental to many Jobskills trainees and Northern Ireland employers.

17.  A large proportion of the skills attained by trainees have not been used in the workplace. Overall, the Audit Office estimated a potential 'skills mismatch' of 36%. In addition, some 45% of trainees were not subsequently employed, studying or training in the occupational area in which they trained in Jobskills. This represents poor value for taxpayers' money.

18.  The vast majority of trainees in designated priority skills areas lie within the construction and engineering sectors. The Department must make special efforts to increase numbers in the three remaining priority areas of Tourism and Hospitality, Electronics and Information Technology.

19.  We expect the Department, as a matter of urgency, to set specific, measurable and time-bounded targets for a reduction in the level of skills mismatch. Similarly, targets should be set for increasing the extent to which trainees are subsequently employed in the occupational area in which they trained in Jobskills.

20.  We were concerned that around one-quarter of employers seemed to be using Jobskills on a 'rolling' basis, as a source of low cost labour for unskilled positions. We expect the Department to take firm action with employers and training providers to deal with the problem.

Financial monitoring and control

21.  We are disturbed by the growing evidence from this and other reports that some Northern Ireland Departments are unacceptably lax in identifying and tackling fraud. We found it astonishing that, in such a massive programme which has been running for 10 years, no fraud has been detected. We were particularly concerned that the Department has deemed recoveries of £566,000 in respect of so-called 'incorrect, ineligible and unsubstantiated' claims to be due to error - none were considered to have been attempted fraud. Based on our experience of other, similar schemes, we are not at all convinced.

22.  Our concerns are heightened by a case where payments had been claimed for periods when trainees were not actually engaged in training. Despite suspecting fraud, the Department appeared to turn a 'blind eye'. We are in no doubt that this organisation should not have been allowed to continue operating within the programme. This would have sent a clear signal to other organisations that improper claims will not be tolerated.

23.  Overall, it is our view that the Department's checking procedures are not detecting irregularities in the programme. It must reconsider whether its checks are sufficiently rigorous and how they could reasonably be strengthened.

General conclusions

24.  Our overall impression is that Jobskills is one of the worst-run programmes that this Committee has examined in recent years. We noted a quite astonishing catalogue of failures and control weaknesses, all of which pointed to a disturbing level of complacency within the Department. While we readily acknowledge that it has to deal with some very difficult groups of young people, this does not explain the widespread shortcomings in supervision and control that existed.

25.  It is clear that Jobskills has not received the senior management attention that it deserves. One of the most damning aspects of the Department's handling is the extent to which a number of the most fundamental weaknesses—such as poor quality training and high levels of early leaving from the scheme—persisted over many years. We saw little evidence of the Department having tackled these problems with any great vigour, prior to the C&AG's review. This points towards an appalling degree of incompetence, indifference or both.

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