Grade one college chief executive says sorry after dodgy data exposed

The chief executive of a grade one college has apologised after an audit exposed data manipulation that resulted in more than £500,000 being paid back to the government.

Lowell Williams (pictured), the boss at Dudley College, told FE Week he even considered resigning over the “blunder”, which has led to the college being excluded from this year’s national achievement rate tables.

Following complaints from a whistleblower last year, the allegations of which are unknown but which have been “dismissed”, the Education and Skills Funding Agency conducted a “review” of the college’s data in December. This found numerous late withdrawals of apprentices and work-placed learners.

There’s no question that the college is at fault in this matter

Once notified of these “concerns”, the college began an internal investigation, which identified the late withdrawals in 2015/16 and 2016/17, which artificially inflated achievement rates.

It also found some learners’ end dates were inaccurate, which resulted in one senior member of staff tendering their resignation.

Dudley College then appointed auditing firm RSM to undertake an “advisory audit”, in agreement with the ESFA, which confirmed the findings this month.

RSM reported that the college had “historically had a poor system for tracking and monitoring the continued activity of apprentices and adult education budget learners where delivery is offsite”.

As a result, “funding has been overclaimed for both adult education budget learners and apprentices as withdrawals have not been actioned in a timely manner to ensure funding was returned in the correct year”.

Williams, who has been at the college for over 10 years and led it to being rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted in June 2017, told FE Week he was “mortified” by this “professionally and personally”.

“There’s no question that the college is at fault in this matter,” Williams said.

“The management of large work-based learning programmes, delivered offsite on a national basis, is complex, but it is our responsibility to get it right and we didn’t.

“We have made provision to return £504,000 to the agency, which represents less than 1 per cent of our total funding claim in these years and does not have any material impact on the college’s financial health.

“I recognise the reputational damage caused by these errors to the college, our stakeholders and the wider sector. I apologise for these mistakes.”

Asked if he considered his own position in the course of the investigations, he added: “The truth is absolutely yes. I’m a national leader of further education and I considered that my position was compromised.

“But advice I received from people I’ve worked with over a career is not to let a single mistake wipe out a lot of good work that has been done over a number of years.”

Williams said the college is “extremely disappointed” to be excluded from the national achievement rate dataset for 2017/18, which was published by the ESFA today, after the agency “could not confirm the accuracy of the college’s achievement rate for adult apprentices” in time.

He added that the college’s website has published the unofficial data instead, which show achievement rates for all apprentices at 80.7 per cent in 2016/17 and 77.2 per cent in 2017/18. 

I considered that my position was compromised

Williams was “grateful” that the ESFA brought the dodgy data to the college’s attention, and said it would be “helpful for the sector in the future if there was a more effective system to analyse and report on late withdrawals and an automatic reconciliation of funds between Individualised Learner Record years”.

“I note that we are not the only college to have fallen foul of these complexities, so it is a good time for us all to take stock and learn lessons for the future,” he added.

FE Week revealed last week that Intraining, a provider part of England’s largest college group NCG, was one of several dozen providers hit with recent mystery audits, and faces not only a clawback but also being removed from the official achievement rate tables.

As previously reported by FE Week, this major review of apprenticeship data is expected to result in the sector being officially warned about unacceptable data practices, as was the case nearly a decade ago when the then chief executive of the funding agency published a letter to the sector.