Muslim course network collapses

March 3, 1995

West Midlands colleges have been advised to be extra cautious about course franchising after the collapse of a Birmingham community class network.

The warning came from the Further Education Funding Council after Bournville College found nearly 90 per cent of scheduled classes not running when it investigated its extended partnership provision with four Muslim groups.

Spot checks were carried out by college staff in January after anonymous tip-offs, days before Pounds 1 million of funding was to be released to the providers.

At 47 venues named as course centres by one group, just six classes were taking place, said the college, one with children under 16. One of the courses was at a Muslim girls' school but all the student names were male and unknown to staff.

Overall, Bourneville made 73 unannounced visits to 69 sites of franchised courses in Birmingham, Luton and Walsall, over a three-day period. Nine courses were found to be running.

Many courses were said to have been cancelled through illness or bereavement.

"The illness that was going on had reached epidemic proportions -it was like the plague had descended on Birmingham," said Patricia Twyman, college principal.

She said that the college had been told of "an inordinate" number of family deaths, mainly the day before, to cause courses to be cancelled. "One woman teacher met by our staff said she could not understand why she was paid to teach for six hours and asked to claim for 15."

Bournville terminated its contracts with the four groups and handed its evidence over to the police to investigate. West Midlands police said this week that the college is likely to have a civil case against the groups, and is investigating whether there is a also a criminal case.

One of the groups, Pakistani Community Care, says it had decided to call a holiday for all bar 15 of its 120 courses during January and February, but Mrs Twyman says she received no written notification of this.

A group spokesman said: "It was not professional to start spot-checking my groups while they were on holiday."

He said providers became confused when confronted by college investigators and said the groups were considering suing the college for breach of contract.

The problem at Bournville may have arisen partly because of the pressure on all 20 colleges serving the greater Birmingham area to grow by 8 per cent to secure next year's funding.

Some, like Bournville, have no buildings to expand into and are already adding portable accommodation.

"Frankly, courses and provision that take place in the community are very attractive," said Mrs Twyman.

"The four groups approached us. They had a clear idea of what their community needed: Islamic studies, industrial sewing, Urdu, Punjabi. Our assistant principal worked during July and August and got to know them well. We are encouraged to move quickly in FE these days and to be entrepreneurial," she said.

The four groups originally suggested 6,000 students and the college took on 3,000 as a pilot.

Cancelling the courses during their 15th week has left the college facing a Pounds 500,000 deficit and redundancies if it cannot replace the lost income - which it is hoping to do with other franchise courses.

Lecturers' union Natfhe has been scathing about franchising to find extra students and has called on Mrs Twyman and her chairman of governors to resign.

"Both the FEFC and the colleges have an interest in keeping the numbers up to meet targets set by the Government," said regional official Paul Mackney. "Pile 'em deep teach' em cheap because bums on seats brings in the lolly."

However Graham Jones, the head of the FEFC's West Midlands office, said he was satisfied Bournville had an efficient checking procedure in place.

"What the college is trying to do is something innovative and adventurous and find new ways of widening participation and allowing communities who find it difficult sometimes to access further education," said Mr Jones.

He said one other West Midlands college was investigating its community franchise programme.

Up until Christmas Bournville had made 109 health and safety visits on the 219 centres involved, many of them residential addresses, and 17 course quality checks. The college inspector was always accompanied, as the providers said that many of the courses were women-only.

Mrs Twyman said: "I would advise other colleges to be very careful and in the light of our experience, to do as much checking in an independent manner.

"But it is difficult because you don't go into partnerships basing everything on suspicion. Somehow or other you have got to maintain good relations but never forget you are a guardian of public money," she added.

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