Minister demands training league

Dorothy Lepkowska reports on Government plans for new scrutiny in battle against sleaze

Performance tables of companies that run training courses are being drawn up in a massive drive against sleaze, education minister Kim Howells said this week.

Ministers want the system of contracts between training and enterprise councils and the companies that run the courses simplified to cut red tape.

And a new set of performance indicators will be drawn up to allow direct comparisons of training standards and drop-out rates.

Dr Howells, the lifelong learning minister, said a system like school performance tables would let local people compare TECs, colleges and training companies.

He was speaking after issuing a warning to TECs following revelations that Central England TEC faces an inquiry into alleged fraud by a large training provider.

Dr Howells has threatened to wind the TEC up because of the row. Details of the CENTEC investigation emerged as ministers revealed that 20 cases of alleged fraud by training providers under contract to TECs were on the books.

He added: "At the moment the results are presented in a very complicated way. No comparisons can be made in the way they can with A-levels for example. We want to present tables where people in the locality can look at them and be persuaded that all is well."

He said investigations into alleged fraud at the Central England TEC (see story right) and a breakdown in partnerships between it and local businesses, would prove to be a "landmark for all TECs around the country".

And Dr Howells admitted that the intricacies of the existing system of contracts meant some providers had been given the benefit of the doubt when financial discrepancies occurred. But he said there would be no let-up in the current strict auditing arrangements.

Dr Howells said: "TECs will have to be very careful now. The leading players will have to draw lessons from this incident and understand that they cannot take their eyes off the ball for one minute as far as probity in the expenditure of public money is concerned."

The minister said the CENTEC controversy had prompted him to re-evaluate the "complicated paperwork and bureaucracy which accompanies training in thiscountry".

"There are a lot of reputable and respectable providers who from time to time make mistakes because of the system," he said.

"A review of these contract arrangements will start immediately so we can try to discover how we can get better value for money and make life simpler. We hope to come up with a series of proposals early in the New Year.

"However, there will be no easing of the business of checking and monitoring that public funds are being spent properly. The providers will not be audited to death but everyone needs to have confidence in them so that the services they say will be delivered, are delivered."

A statement from CENTEC said local partnerships were working well. The board took the question of irregular payments seriously, but they would not prevent them providing a high-class service.

The newly-created Training Standards Council, set up to monitor TEC standards, will oversee the overhaul with the Department for Education and Employment.

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