Tuesday 17 October 2017

Calls for FAS probe after claims staff forced to break exam rules

Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

TANAISTE Mary Coughlan will come under pressure to order an inquiry into claims FAS managers tried to force staff to approve dodgy exam results.

The shocking allegation is the latest twist in the marking controversy at the scandal-hit state training agency, during which assessments on a number of courses were manipulated so students could pass exams.

The revelation came as it emerged FAS director-general Paul O'Toole has admitted to the Department of Enterprise that safeguards were not strong enough to prevent repeated irregularities in the marking of some of its training courses.

Mr O'Toole also indicated in an internal email that problems with courses may be more widespread than previously thought.

The agency last night refused to comment on claims that some of its own managers had pressurised staff to break exam verification rules.

Officials from trade union SIPTU first made the allegation in a letter to FAS 18 months ago, the Irish Independent has learned.

The exam irregularities were uncovered in 2007 and 2008 by a staff member, who found assessment results had been falsified on courses run by outside firms contracted by FAS.

However, it has been alleged the staff member was put under pressure by FAS management to validate the results anyway.

In a letter to FAS, SIPTU said "a number of interventions by management" all seemed to put pressure on the staff member "to operate outside the procedures".

The employee refused to do so and was later vindicated when a series of audits confirmed the irregularities had taken place.

The allegations have raised serious questions about the relationship between certain outside training companies and a number of FAS managers.

However, despite the serious concerns expressed by the union, FAS has refused to say whether it conducted any investigation into the claim.

SIPTU officials were standing over the allegation last night and insisted FAS had "failed to respond to the issue in a satisfactory manner".

The Tanaiste is to face calls for full-scale inquiry in the Dail next week, where the matter is due to be raised by Fine Gael TD Fergus O'Dowd.

Among the claims put forward by the staff member was that certain managers continually backed up training firms, even when they were clearly in the wrong.

The employee complained of being "hammered by management when certification can't go through due to missing documentation, incorrect information, irregularities or falsification of results".

It was also claimed that, on at least one occasion, certification of results was "forced through" even though irregularities had been flagged with management.

This has been disputed by FAS, which has maintained no invalid certificates were issued.

It has also been claimed a manager told the staff member that a relative of a named government minister was on a course at the centre of irregularities, with the implication being that delaying certification could cause problems for FAS.

Investigation

Mr O'Dowd said a full investigation of the claims was needed before confidence in FAS could be restored.

"It would be totally unacceptable, immoral and disgraceful that pressure would be put on anyone to approve results which had been falsified," he said.

"I am calling for a full inquiry into the very serious claim that has been made by the union representatives."

SIPTU branch organiser Brendan O'Brien said the union stood over the allegation made in the letter to FAS.

He said the union was in ongoing correspondence with FAS on the issue, as it was unhappy with the agency's response.

Mr O'Brien said the staff member had been made "feel under pressure and under stress to move things along".

"You can't do that. If there are set procedures, they have to be followed," he said.

Mr O'Brien added that the exams controversy was damaging the morale of staff and deflecting attention from the good work done by the agency.

A statement issued by FAS last night said: "FAS is not in a position to discuss matters concerning individual staff members. It is FAS practice that all staff matters be handled in a dignified and confidential manner and in accord with agreed staff relations procedures."

A review of FAS training programmes is expected to be completed by the end of February.

Irish Independent

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