Scandal of the year that never delivered

20th December 2002 at 00:00
Steve Hook looks back at the past 12 months, and wonders what happened to the great individual learning accounts fraud

SYLVIA Iwuagwu made a small step for mankind at the beginning of an eventful year when she became the first person on earth to land up as a convicted individual learning account fraudster.

Nearly a year later, she holds another claim to fame: hers remains the only conviction.*

She pleaded guilty in January to obtaining pound;9,396 by deception from the Department for Education and Skills.

Despite widespread reports of the ill-fated scheme having been ripped off to the tune of millions of pounds before its closure, more than a year of investigation by police and sleuths in the DfES's own "special investigations unit" have so far failed to expose the big-time computer hackers, terrorists and other bogeymen rumoured to have been stealing the cash.

John Healey, the then adult skills minister, was called back by Parliament's education select committee to be tackled about the real reasons why ILAs were scrapped. He put a brave face on toughing out the saga considering that he had not been in post when the ILA scheme was created; more than enough stress for a man who already has to cope with a facial resemblance to Mr Rigsby, the character played by Leonard Rossiter in the 1970s' sitcom Rising Damp.

In February, the more serious pressures facing further education recruitment were exposed in a survey by the Association of Colleges, which found that staff turnover in colleges had trebled and hardly anyone was even bothering to apply for principals' jobs.

Poor pay, an issue which would dominate the sector for much of the coming year, was blamed as a key cause by the employers and led to a national strike and a pay dispute which remains unresolved.

David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, accused the Government of making things worse by engineering a propaganda campaign against colleges.

He accused it of putting out "heavily manipulated stories" which gave the impression of a sector rife with fraud.

His outburst might have been more easily dismissed by ministers if it had not been backed up by similar comments from Stephen Grix - then the post-16 chief inspector at the Office for Standards in Education. Not only were new FE teachers being offered "peanuts", he said, but morale was being undermined further by the Government's misleading use of statistics.

In his swansong speech to college managers, he said further and higher education minister Margaret Hodge's use of National Audit Office data on success rates had given a false impression of college performance.

Perhaps it was a recently liberated Stephen Grix who made the peanut connection with lecturers' pay again at the lecturers' union Natfhe's conference in Torquay in June. We shall never know. Ivan Lewis, the young people's minister, was there to take the flak and was accosted by a mystery protester in a monkey suit offering him peanuts.

A summer of discontent was looming when, in April, the unions rejected a 1.5 per cent pay offer for lecturers. Talking of the 12 per cent pay gap with schoolteachers, Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, said: "And that figure is from the department, so it is probably conservative."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's department for employment and learning had announced a review of further education which could see incorporation scrapped in the province, a development which would be watched with interest this side of the water.

The collapse of the Northern Ireland assembly has led to increased optimism about the review - which many in the sector think would be hindered rather than helped by the presence of Stormont's squabbling political factions.

Back in England, society was changing its ways at a gentler pace. Take the graduates of Lucie Clayton College in London. They know a thing or two - like how to climb out of the boyfriend's E-type without giving the passing plebs a flash of their designer knickers.

The establishment, founded in 1928 as a charm school, announced a merger with St James's, the capital's oldest secretarial college, also privately owned. But the traditions of the upper classes were still holding sway in the corridors of power, according to some observers.

In fact, people could be forgiven for thinking an "elitist and, some would say, snobbish" DfES was not paying enough attention to vocational skills, according to Barry Sheerman, chairman of the education select committee. He said the Government was taking too long to devise a national skills strategy.

As the year finally drew to a close, the appointment of a new education secretary, and his announcement of extra funding for FE, was still not enough to bring the pay dispute to an end.

And Mr Gibson announced that he would retire as AoC chief executive next August.

*True at the time of going to press

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