Some lecturers at Manchester College of Arts and Technology (Mancat), from which the Learning and Skills Council recently reclaimed pound;300,000, felt under constant pressure to falsify records for funding purposes, FE Focus can reveal.
Staff from two departments, ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) and computer imaging, say that systems for claiming additional learning support (ALS) money and filling in student registers were riddled with irregularities.
Following tension between the LSC and Mancat over ALS claims during 2002-03, the college was inspected by Dr Terry Melia, former chairman of the Learning and Skills Development Agency. His confidential report appeared in February and uncovered no evidence of malpractice.
He told FE Focus: "My job was to decide whether what I was looking at could be legitimately described as ALS. I wasn't auditing. I was there for a week. I looked at a few examples and it seemed to me that it was legitimate. It's a big operation at Mancat - probably about pound;3 million a year. I accept that in any institution you may well get a bit of abuse but while I was there no teacher ever raised any problem with me - I suppose it's the scale that decides whether it's a scandal or just a management problem.
"I think Mancat's a good college. Some of the initial assessment (of students) is the best I have ever seen. I did have sympathy with teachers who were forced to describe what they were doing to meet the needs of auditors. My view was that the bureaucracy was difficult.
"ESOL was one of many areas I looked at - in doing this, you go where they send you; and you go where they don't send you. But I saw no examples of the things you have described."
But some ex-Mancat staff paint a different picture. Over the years, they say, many students for whom ALS money was claimed did not receive support.
Until August 2002, Mel McClaine was a senior trainer and course leader in computer imaging. "I saw a great deal of ALS abuse within my own department," she said. "I would not complete or sign forms for classes as criteria for funding were not being met for students who needed it.
"This caused a lot of friction between myself and managers, who insisted the college required the funding, that students sign blank forms in all cases first, and that the trainer fill it in later."
Another lecturer in computer imaging was shocked to return from sick leave in June 2003 and be asked to "back-date the ALS form for two adult students". He said: "When I asked what this meant, I was told by one manager 'just do the usual Mancat fiddle'.
"There were already forms filled out. I was expected to backdate claims by making them up. I had not been in for eight months - how could I know what they had been taught?"
Within ESOL, many of whose students are asylum-seekers and where last year FE Focus exposed a bullying problem, there was also disquiet. Ex-tutor and team leader Inka Clark, who worked at Mancat from November 2002 to May 2003, said her students filled in ALS forms for extra exam practice and IT support but received neither. "We had to get forms filled in for all classes - whether the students needed support or not was not taken into consideration," said Ms Clark. "We were asked not to date the forms so they could be used as and when.
"The only support provided for some classes was IT in the form of a teacher in timetabled ESOL IT sessions, which every group had weekly. But the teacher was unqualified, which made the support inadequate, and the student teacher ratio too great - 22 students.
"During the Adult Learning Inspectorate and Ofsted inspection in April 2002, we were told that we should under no circumstances complain to the inspector about any aspects of our work because we would only jeopardise our own jobs."
Another former ESOL team leader has described Mancat's handling of ALS funding as "one of the biggest scams I knew about". "The first time this happened was when we had just started at Mancat in April 2001," she said.
"We had to get students to sign an ALS form which at this point was blank.
This was in case they left suddenly; we could still fill them in and claim."
She confirmed Ms Clark's claim that some students who completed forms for extra IT help never received it. "They would only get the one hour per week in the computer room, the same as everyone else," she said.
Several tutors in ESOL and computer imaging were pressed to alter registers, on which funding also depended. "If students were absent, we had to mark them with an 'O' which meant they did not attend; did not contact college," said Ms McClaine.
"The student would be withdrawn after three 'Os' but I was told not to mark students who ceased to attend with an 'O'. It was explained to me that if a student were to be withdrawn before a certain benchmark date, the college would lose funding.
"I was told by a divisional leader to mark a student who had ceased to attend as being off with 'authorised absence' or AA in the register. I was very uneasy about this. I put A, or absent, from then on. I photocopied my registers each week."
Former ESOL tutor Hardip Kaur also told of registers being altered after they had been handed into departmental head Marina Parha.
"Names unfamiliar to the class teacher had appeared and in some cases existing students had been marked present when they had, in fact, been absent," said Ms Kaur. "On showing my own registers to Marina Parha in the first term of the academic year 2001-02, I was asked by her what all the zeros were for.
"When I explained they indicated student absences, she replied: 'I don't like all those zeros - we'll have to do something about that'. In a subsequent meeting, she told me to change some of the zeros to ticks for a few weeks. I did not argue and neither did I alter my registers."
Andrew Harding, another ex ESOL lecturer, said he was asked to mark absent students as present "to avoid such absences casting a negative light on my performance as a teacher". "I refused," he said.
Mr Harding also said that on the eve of the Ofsted inspection at the end of April 2002, Ms Parha announced that ESOL had achieved a student retention rate of 100 per cent. The department was subsequently awarded a grade one.
"Those present were stunned," he said. "We knew that it was common for students to leave, sometimes without warning, in the middle of their courses."
One ex-team leader in Mancat's ESOL department said: "If a student wanted to leave or was sent to another part of the country, then we had to keep marking them in until they had completed a term because - God forbid - we might lose funding.
"The nature of asylum-seekers was that they would just leave. But teachers would often have to write a load of garbage and even forge signatures to say that students had progressed."
Asked to comment on the allegations, Mancat deputy principal Barbara Forshaw said: "The college has robust systems for the investigation of complaints, grievances and whistleblowing.
"In two cases in which register fraud was alleged, PWC and KPMG (accountancy firms) were involved at considerable public expense and the college was exonerated. Mancat, unlike many colleges, has a clean audit record in a sector which is widely acknowledged to be over-audited.
"It is a large and complex college successfully meeting government agendas and referred to by the minister in his speech as 'an excellent college'.
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"I suggest that if individuals have evidence to substantiate their claims, then they should use it through the formal routes with the appropriate authorities so that an investigation can take place," she said.