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College 'inflated success rates', reveals principal

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A newly appointed principal has taken action after uncovering evidence his college inflated its success rates by manipulating results data, TES can reveal.

Matt Hamnett launched an internal inquiry shortly after arriving at North Hertfordshire College in March into concerns relating to the way the college was run prior to him taking up the post.

He told TES a number of individual learner records had been deliberately omitted from the college’s annual return of information to the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) between 2008 and 2014, artificially boosting its success rate figures.

The college’s success rate for classroom based learning in 2013/14 was originally reported as 90.5 per cent. When the omitted data was included, the rate dropped to 86.4 per cent. As a result, the college would have dropped from 11th in the national success rates tables to 51st.

Mr Hamnett said the college would have underclaimed SFA funding as a result of not returning the data, though he could not say how much. But he told TES: “There was no financial fraud in this institution.”

Following the investigation, which was conducted with the support of the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and the SFA, and audited by accountancy firm BDO, Mr Hamnett said the college’s senior management team had been “refreshed” and “appropriate disciplinary action” had been taken.

However, he would not say how many members of staff had been disciplined or in what way.

Mr Hamnett also conducted a full round of mock inspections in all parts of the college supported by external inspectors.

The college’s governing body had also been “refreshed”, he said, but added: “There was no evidence any of our governors were complicit in the issues we identified.”

He added: “I think it is important the college moves quickly on from this. Our success rates are still 1.7 per cent above the national average and I now have a senior team I am incredibly proud of, who are desperate to focus on the quality of teaching and learning.”

The issue of colleges failing to report details of unsuccessful students to boost their results was once thought to be widespread in the sector.

However, in 2009 the then Skills Funding Agency (SFA) chief executive Geoff Russell started a crackdown on the practice.

Mr Hamnett became principal of North Hertfordshire in March. He previously spent eight years as a civil servant in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and its predecessors with responsibility for FE, skills and apprenticeships, and two years working for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Last week, North Hertfordshire College announced it was withdrawing from the Gazelle Colleges Group, of which it was a founding member and which was set up by the college’s former principal and chief executive Fintan Donohue.

There is no suggestion that Gazelle or Mr Donohue were involved with the omission of learner records. Mr Hamnett said: “For me it is really important we draw a line in the sand between NHC’s past and its future.”

In a statement to TES, the SFA said providers were responsible for the accuracy of the data they submitted, and for ensuring that they only claimed for funds to which they were entitled.

“The college has kept the SFA and the EFA informed of its internal investigations and its concluding report," it said.

“Having reviewed the college’s investigation and concluding report, the SFA is satisfied that the funding paid to the college is appropriate and that the college has responded swiftly and effectively to the issues it identified.

“The SFA has sought assurance from the corporation to ensure the situation would not arise again and is not planning to take any further action.”

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