Hundreds of teachers and other school staff have studied for a qualification in emotional literacy that has been described as "not worth the paper it is printed on" because it has been rejected by British universities.
The School of Emotional Literacy, based in Britain, offered the certificates and diplomas with accreditation from the University of Action Learning (UAL), an internet university based in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
Elizabeth Morris, the school's principal, called herself "Dr" on the strength of a doctorate awarded by the website and has been quoted in the press as an emotional literacy expert. She was surprised to be informed of the university's location by The TES, and has now dropped the title and expressed concern that her students could have relied on such accreditation.
Schools and local authorities have spent up to pound;300,000 sending staff on Ms Morris's part-time post-graduate courses.
Their popularity reflects the boom in the education sector's interest in emotional literacy, which teaches staff to better communicate and identify their feelings and those of their pupils.
The school has offered training courses to school staff in Bristol, Birmingham, Dudley, Cumbria, Thurrock, throughout Kent, and in Belfast, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
But when those students tried to use the qualifications for credits towards further study, the universities they approached rejected the certificates as worthless without another university's accreditation.
Simon Ellis, a senior lecturer in the department of professional development at Canterbury Christ Church University, had to turn down an application from a student who thought her certificate would count towards a masters degree.
"I would need to have some kind of indication of the accrediting body for that certificate before we could judge it to represent eligibility for joining one of our courses or use it for credits towards another course," he told The TES.
One student said she had been rebuffed by London Metropolitan University and the Open University. Another said she was turned away by Bristol University.
Annie Hamlaoui, a former school guidance counsellor who studied and worked with the school, has co-ordinated a group of more than 35 unhappy students.
She, too, has tried to use the certificate for further study.
"I feel very disappointed and let down because it is now obvious that, from an academic point of view, this certificate is not worth the paper it is written on," she said. "It will not help me in any way to gain access to higher education courses to help further my career."
Whether the students would have fared better with UAL accreditation is unknown: none was willing to pay pound;300 for an accreditation stamp from a website based in a government office in Melanesia. One said she had been too "embarrassed" to go back to the local authority that funded her certificate course to ask for another pound;300.
She had not used the certificate for further studies because "nobody would take it seriously".
"To me, it was a shambles, a big money-making scheme," she said.
But other students were happy with the certificates and diplomas, saying the training was of a good quality, regardless of the lack of accreditation.
The Thanet Excellence Cluster, a partnership of schools in east Kent, has sent about 20 teachers and other school staff on the courses, at a cost of about Pounds 20,000.
Jenny Moorhouse, the cluster's project director, said her candidates had never expected that their certificates would count towards subsequent university studies.
"The main motivation of people doing it was that they actually wanted to develop an understanding of emotional intelligence," she said. "From our point of view, I don't think the issue of whether it automatically carried the number of points with it became a particular issue."
Ms Morris has now ended the agreement with UAL, but did not do so until some time after the Distance Education and Training Council revoked its authority to award degrees in February 2005.
Ms Morris told The TES she had not realised that UAL had lost its accreditation, nor that it was run out of Vanuatu, when she was offering the courses to students and completing her own doctorate.
She has since told people that she and her course have won accreditation from Middlesex University. But inquiries to Middlesex revealed that Ms Morris and the school have no such accreditation. The accreditation was for an entirely separate training company in Gloucestershire that may hire Ms Morris to teach a course.
Ms Morris admitted to "sloppiness" in how she had described the Middlesex accreditation, and agreed that courses offered through her school had no accreditation.
"I'm quite upset about this," she said. "I need to go and find out more about it because I have felt absolutely comfortable about saying `I've got this doctorate and I deserve this doctorate.' But now I need to check out more.
"I've got no wish to misrepresent myself, and I never have done. I can absolutely assure you that if I'd had any idea about this, I wouldn't have said the things I've said or been calling myself a doctor."
SOME FEEL DUPED, BUT OTHERS IMPRESSED
Carole Davies, head of Lydden Primary, near Dover in Kent, travelled to Ramsgate to do both the School of Emotional Literacy's certificate and diploma courses, though she chose to not complete the latter. She understood that the qualifications would be automatically accredited.
Creative Partnerships, the Government's creative learning programme, paid for the course and for supply cover at her school.
"It was just not valuable at all. Thousands and thousands of words for no practical use and no educational status," Mrs Davies said.
"I would hesitate before putting this certificate on my CV or referencing the School of Emotional Literacy. I feel a bit stupid about it."
Kathy, an early years consultant in south-west England who completed her certificate course last year, said she had the understanding that the certificate was university accredited because her classes were held in a building owned by Bristol University.
"I thought having that certificate on my CV would give me credibility as someone who can advise on early years emotional literacy," she said. "I don't now believe it has any credence whatsoever."
But some students were less concerned about the lack of accreditation. Jennie Carter, head of The Churchill School in Folkestone, Kent, said she knew nothing about who the accreditation was from but knew it would cost an extra pound;300.
She paid for her diploma out of the school's in-service training budget, and had been very happy with the training. "I wanted to know more about emotional literacy because it underpins teaching," she said. "It paid off, and results in my school went up. Those results mean more to me than any kind of certificate or accreditation."