A training company run by a former international footballer has seen its pound;4.2 million contract to work with a college terminated due to claims of "irregularities".
Luis Michael Training was set up in July 2009 by former Welsh international Mark Aizlewood and by November of that year had won the contract with Sparsholt College in Hampshire. The deal was to provide sports apprenticeships, and was made after a member of college staff who knew one of the company directors made the introduction.
The contract was terminated in December by the college, which blamed unspecified "irregularities". Luis Michael Training has since threatened legal action against Sparsholt and other colleges that ended similar contracts, saying it was not told the reason for the termination, which it said was unjustified.
Its contract with Sparsholt involved places for 1,189 apprentices in a partnership with several football clubs, from League One's Sheffield Wednesday to Conference team Redditch United, and the company went on to win smaller contracts at Barnet College and South Thames College.
The company trades on connections with former football stars such as Ian Rush, quoted on its website: "I myself have recommended the NVQs and apprenticeships Luis Michael offer to a number of people - all of whom have found them informative and enjoyable."
According to the November 2009 minutes of Sparsholt's governing body, concerns about the relationship between the college's learning manager for outdoor leisure and sport and one of the directors of Luis Michael were rejected. "The learning manager had not been involved with the development of the college's association with Luis Michael other than the initial introduction," the minutes said.
"There were no concerns about the viability of the Luis Michael business. The company was strong enough to be able to deliver this contract alone but preferred to operate through a college associate agreement." Governors saw the deal with Luis Michael as an opportunity to prepare for the shift from Train to Gain to apprenticeships.
But at the end of last year, Sparsholt terminated the contract. A spokeswoman said: "We can confirm that we did terminate our contract in December because of perceived irregularities." The college said it was continuing to provide places for the students with the help of employers and the National Apprenticeship Service. In a statement, the college declined to comment further due to a legal dispute with the company.
A spokeswoman for the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) said it was working with affected colleges to protect learners and public funds. But she said colleges were responsible for their own subcontracting arrangements, which are becoming increasingly common as the SFA seeks to cut costs by dealing only with the largest providers.
Barnet College and South Thames College also cancelled contracts with the company. A spokesman for Barnet College said it "didn't live up to expectations" but declined to comment further, citing commercial confidentiality.
A spokesman for Luis Michael Training said the company was "considering taking action against all of those colleges that have terminated".