Bills anger learn direct training companies

Private training organisations have been caught up in a row over leandirect funding after they were accused of failing to recruit enough people onto courses.

Firms and charities have been hit with threats of legal action and bills from Mid-Cheshire college, which was in charge of the Cheshire and Warrington learndirect "hub" until August.

The hubs distribute cash on behalf of the University for Industry, which pays for the online learning courses nationally.

The organisations claim they have been put under pressure to pay money which they do not owe.

The college claims the money is due from organisations which failed to recruit and retain the anticipated number of students.

Brenda Roberts, who runs a firm called Castella Computer Training, was told to hand over pound;95,000. A county court judge last week ruled she must pay at least pound;50,000, although Mrs Roberts has been given leave to appeal over the rest of the amount.

In her written evidence, Mrs Roberts had dismissed the college's claim as "laughable", insisting it has consistently refused to break down the figure in a way which would allow her to challenge it with her own student records. The college denies this.

She had intended to challenge the entire amount but says she was unable to do so because legal papers from her lawyers failed to arrive at the court in time for an earlier hearing.

The college says, in addition to Castella's debt, it is owed a total of Pounds 35,000 from four other training firms. Three of these have made a final offer and are paying in instalments.

These include a village charity, Poynton community centre, near Stockport.

The centre agreed to pay pound;6,000 of the pound;13,000 demanded by the college, in instalments of pound;250 a week.

Chris Claxton, who runs the centre, said he will never get involved in learndirect again and now questions the concept of online learning.

He said: "How do you teach basic IT courses and introduce people to computing by doing it online when the reason they need the tuition is that they don't know how to use a computer? The whole concept is illogical.

"The whole thing is a bag of worms. Most of the online courses didn't work properly because of problems with the software.

"I pulled out in August. People come off these online courses not getting taught what they ought to. It doesn't sink in. They have not got a clue what the are doing.

"I won't touch it (learndirect) again for as long as I live. I think the whole thing is a rip-off."

He and Mrs Roberts both claim students needed more help than anticipated, leaving them with the cost of providing more direct "offline" tuition than the were funded for.

They say they received little support from the college despite having to pay administration charges.

Wanda Ford, the college's finance director, says the firms have been provided with all the information they need about the debts and insists the administration charge was for the hub's internal costs - not for support to providers.

She said: "Both learning providers were given a detailed breakdown, including the number of learners, and how that sum was arrived at, learner-by-learner. The administration charge was for the administration of the hub. That's quite clear in the contract."

It has also been revealed that the hub operator in Merseyside, which went into voluntary liquidation last month, owed training firms pound;312,821.

The figure is mentioned in papers submitted to Companies House since Mersey Hub Ltd ceased trading last month.

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