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Inquiry over false course claims

Allegations that a South London college received thousands of pounds by falsely claiming students had passed vocational courses are being investigated.

The National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the South London Training and Enterprise Council are involved in the inquiry into up to 70 certificates obtained by students at the Sight and Sound College in Greenwich.

They are investigating claims that dozens of students passed national vocational qualifications at levels 2 and 3 in business administration and information technology, without their work being seen by verifiers.

Certificates were apparently awarded after the lists of "successful" candidates were posted to the awarding body, the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) Examinations Board. The South London TEC is investigating the circumstances in which 70 certificates, each worth Pounds 1,000 to the college, were obtained, and believe that at least 32 may have been falsely awarded.

Senior training consultant Kate Schroder and another staff member were dismissed for alleged "gross misconduct" after telling the TEC of the alleged irregularities. Ms Schroder, a manager with responsibility for making funding bids to TECs nationally who was seconded to Greenwich, found that staff at the centre were demoralised.

She said the verification system was not personally monitored. "The contract between LCCI and the training provider was based on trust. They were sent a list of candidates saying the work had been done."

LCCI chief executive Liam Swords said that the business administration course had been verified postally, but that the IT course was subject to individual portfolio assessment. He said the college had been visited by employees of the examination board. "Postal verification is not peculiar to us, but we use it only when we are happy with all of the internal systems."

The TEC may ask for a police investigation after concluding its inquiries next week. Ian Irving, its operations director, said 32 certificates were being investigated and the final total could be as high as 70. He could not recall ever having seen a common accord - the statement of arrangements between awarding bodies and trainers - which allowed for postal verification.

The National Council for Vocational Qualifications has launched its own inquiry. Chief executive John Hillier said he did not regard postal verification alone as an acceptable form of assessment. He said there may be a need for greater external scrutiny of NVQ courses.

In a statement, Sight and Sound said it had a rigorous audit procedure. "In a check undertaken in January of this year arising from complaints of trainees, some discrepancies were found in established procedures at the Greenwich college. It was discovered through this internal audit that several documents had been removed and swift action was taken by central management of Sight and Sound. The local management of the Greenwich college including Kate Schroder were summarily dismissed."

Stephen Byers, Labour's training spokesman and MP for Wallsend, this week tabled parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment concerning the issuing of NVQs and the activities of Sight and Sound and the LCCI.

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