'Sorry' Dudley College boss calls for support and advice as auditing system gets ever more complex

The leader of a high-profile college has called for greater support in navigating the government’s increasingly complex and high-stake audit system, after falling foul of data rules.

Lowell Williams, chief executive of Dudley College, says there is a “spectrum of issues” arising out of audits that have created an environment that doesn’t encourage “people to work together to solve the core problem”.

“I’m a national leader of further education and we go in and work with colleges on teaching, learning, engaging staff, communication and strategic planning, but I’m not aware of an equivalent line of support available for people getting the data systems right,” he said.

We’re going from no support to audit of the nth degree

“I would like the possibility for the sector to sit down openly with the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the audit firms and say, ‘We are having difficulty with some of this stuff’, and feel they can do that if they have made mistakes and that they won’t be castigated for it.”

Williams was speaking exclusively to FE Week just months after Dudley College had to pay back more than £500,000 to the Department for Education after an audit exposed numerous late withdrawals of learners, non-compliance with breaks in learning, and overstated achievement rates.

The chief executive of the Ofsted grade one college apologised for the “blunder” at the time and said he had even considered resigning over it.

But since then, his team has made a catalogue of significant improvements in their data tracking and recording processes, which will help to prevent the errors that have occurred in previous years.

Williams is now planning to share the results of the “action plan” (click here to read) with the wider sector, and wants a tripartite partnership between government, audit firms and providers to tackle the complex system.

He said the range of providers falling foul of audits go from “very serious calculated fraudulent activity at the extreme end, to, at the other end, mismanagement of complex data”.

One of the most “difficult things” for Dudley was that it “has been associated in the same breath as people who are doing some of this stuff for profit and personal private profit, in a way which warrants investigation by the police”, Williams said.

He continued: “There is virtually nowhere you can go if you are a college principal with a data issue which doesn’t end up in difficulty for you, and that is the problem.

“We gave back half-a-million pounds which we hadn’t anticipated doing. Our financial health was in a place where we gave it back and that was OK, but for others, that could have been a destabilising number. There is no incentive for people to be open about the difficulties they have.

“We’re going from no support to audit of the nth degree, in the most complex and difficult funding system that one could imagine, with huge consequences at the end of it.”

Williams said the fault does not just lie with ESFA staff, because their capacity has been “diminished over the years”.

“There was a time where if you did have an issue you could ring somebody up and they would come in and have a chat and give support and advice,” he explained.

“I sense the agency has pushed themselves to ensure they’re not held accountable for public funds being wasted.”

FE Week revealed in February that several dozen providers had been hit with recent mystery audits, after the ESFA raised concern about the reliability of their data. They not only faced a funding clawback, but were also removed from the official achievement rate tables.

Dudley College is planning on sharing its follow-up audit report, conducted by auditing firm RSM last month, with the sector from today (July 5).

“We will invite any college that wants to discuss it further to have a discussion with us,” he said.

“We’re quite happy to make that report available and the formulas and everything that goes with it if other people would like to use it.”

Williams concluded: “At the end of the day it was the college’s error, it is our responsibility to get the administration right as well as Ofsted right. We have now learnt a hard lesson about not being complacent for the need to check and double-check every aspect of your individual learner records management to get it right.”