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Well, shoot me down in flames

Things are likely to start fizzing and cracking at learndirect, the Government's online learning operation, after the softly-spoken Quaker Ann Limb stepped down as chief executive in May.

UFI, which runs learndirect, will be all guns blazing from January when the outfit is taken over by arms supremo Sarah Jones.

She is business unit director of RG Ammunition, part of BAE Systems, the defence and aerospace giant.

RG makes bullets for pistols, rifles and battlefield weapons, and likes to use the motto "accuracy, reliability and consistency".

But what's the connection with education?

Well, for one thing, Ms Jones knows a lot about hitting government targets, as RG's website clearly shows. The firm's products include 7.62mm ammunition with "enhanced penetration capability" (very handy if you want to shoot people through their body armour) that "delivers a powerful force against vehicles including fixed- and rotary-winged aircraft".

Ms Jones is familiar with some of the bizarre language of further education. For instance, RG's website says its ammunition represents a "major step-change" in the performance parameter of the small-calibre weapon system.

And her experience will be appreciated by John Weston, UFI's new chairman.

He was chief executive at BAE Systems until March 2002.

On the appointment, Mr Weston said: "Sarah has worked closely with governments in both the UK and the US to negotiate and deliver major contracts for the Ministry of Defence."

BAE Systems knows a lot about these contracts. Let me bring you up to date.

As the National Audit Office can confirm, BAE Systems is behind some of the biggest and most over-budget contracts with the MoD. The contract price for the Astute submarine was pound;2.6 billion, but has risen to a projected cost on delivery of pound;3.4bn.

Likewise, the latest Nimrod aircraft (based on the Comet airliner that first flew in 1949) has gone from pound;2.8bn to pound;3.6bn, and the Typhoon aircraft contract has risen from pound;16.7bn to over pound;19bn.

The Type 45 warship contract, originally agreed at pound;5bn, has also proved more expensive than was first agreed, but the NAO cannot say by how much. The figure is "commercially confidential", said an NAO spokesman.

Of course, it would be grossly unfair to assume that BAE Systems, rather than the MoD, is responsible for these costs, and Mr Weston had long since cleared his desk at BAE by the time the latest overspending had occurred.

So, let's hope that the contract between learndirect and the Department for Education and Skills will be more successful.

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