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Judge critical of Link Training

High Court rules that North Derbyshire college does not have to pay pound;2.7million bill for courses. Harvey McGavin reports

THE COUNTRY'S largest private training provider has failed in its attempt to sue a Derbyshire college and three of its managers for more than pound;3 million.

Link Training, part of the Spring Group of companies, took North Derbyshire Tertiary College to court after it withheld payment under a franchising deal involving more than 7,000 students.

Under the deal, Link set up a system where consultants, or "mentors", provided guided learning hours for staff at firms including Asda, House of Fraser, Littlewoods, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and WH Smith who were working towards National Vocational Qualifications.

But, during a seven-week trial in Manchester last year, the High Court heard that some mentors made "impossible" claims, exaggerating the amount of contact time to meet the number of guided learning hours required to meet funding requirements. One had recorded 80 hours of tuition at 10 locations in a single day, a figure described by the judge as "inexplicable".

In a judgment published this week stretching to more than 680 pages, Judge Hegarty said the records presented a "disturbing picture". Mentors "were given no coherent instruction or advice as to their role", some students acted as their own mentors and more than 500 students had no named mentor.

The judge said "There is not a shred of documentary evidence to suggest that they were instructed or advised as to their role, or indeed to show how they were recruited or what exactly they were expected to do."

He also doubted Link's claim that guided learning hours could be claimed when the mentors were "available" at the other end of a telephone.

"I cannot see that such a tenuous presence can come within the Further Education Funding Council's definition of guided learning hours. In this context, the notion of availability is little more than the smile on the face of the Cheshire Cat."

Link, which also unsuccessfully attempted to sue the Further Education Funding Council, has said it will consider appealing against the judgment.

Karl Chapman, chief executive of the Spring Group, defended his company's record. About a dozen people had been disciplined in connection with the case, and the company was constantly reviewing its procedures, he said. Regardless of the judgment, he pointed out that they had delivered high-quality training to more than 3,000 people who successfully obtained their NVQ certificates.

He said: "The issue here is not about quality - it is about the way guided learning hours are recorded. There is no debate here about whether students got value - they did.

"We did not believe, and we still do not believe, that the FEFC guidelines applied to this contract."

Link had originally claimed payments amounting to nearly pound;3.5m, which were reduced to a little over pound;2.7m by the time of the trial. The college eventually paid Link more than pound;600,000 for the training it had delivered. 55 per cent of the 7,194 students originally enrolled on the franchise operation achieved their NVQs.

David Bunch, chief executive of the Chesterfield-based college, who along with assistant principal Duncan Haywood and franchise manager Keith Pattinson had faced personal bankruptcy if the judgment had gone against them, said he was delighted. "Spring argues that this was a technical dispute about FEFC rules and the definition of guided learning hours. That is a public relations smokescreen in our view".

The full extent of the irregularities in the registers, which had eluded the college's own auditors and the FEFC, had only come to light after Duncan Haywood had spent several weeks collating them into a 2,800-page report which was presented to the court in evidence.

A spokeswoman for the Serious Fraud Office confirmed that it and Derbyshire police were currently investigating Link Training in connection with the case.

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