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FAS culture must be swept away

PAUL O'Toole was appointed director general of FAS in April last year after the disclosure of a series of scandalous events, involving lavish waste of public money, in the State training agency.

In January of this year, Michael Dempsey was appointed chairman of the agency. The task of the new management team was to "clean up" FAS. They set about it with a will.

But in Ireland, sadly, nothing ever seems to end, least of all the scandals. Last October, this newspaper disclosed that a tutor had "doctored" results to award students passes in examinations they would otherwise have failed. FAS launched an inquiry. Its findings, published in a report yesterday, are shocking.

Officials reviewed 304 courses provided by outside companies for the agency. In eight cases, involving seven separate firms, they found evidence of serious malpractice by contractors or tutors. Allegations against two companies have been referred to the Garda Siochana.

These cases, however, appear to constitute only the tip of an iceberg. The report also reveals, among other disturbing findings, that fewer than half of all courses were fully compliant with rules and procedures; that there were major irregularities on 43 courses; that incorrect totalling of marks and incorrect grades were common; and that some trainers were inexperienced and not properly briefed.

In short, some students received certificates to which they were not entitled, while others have spent over a year waiting for their certificates. As to the first, one can readily imagine the effect on prospective employers. In the second, the successful candidates have been treated with massive unfairness.

Fergus O'Dowd, the Fine Gael spokesman on education, says that the report exposes "a litany of shambles, incompetence and corruption". Can he, and FAS itself, take comfort from the identification of the troubles, the first step toward overcoming them?

Mr O'Toole says that the new team "are getting to grips with those problems". Unfortunately, it is evident that they have found the problems worse than they expected. They have set out to change the FAS culture, but the culture is highly resistant to change.

It would appear that some of the people they employ take little notice of new brooms, and have not forsaken their attachment to dubious practices. It has to be made clear to such people, whether they are public servants or outside contractors, that these practices will not be tolerated. And the trade unions have a role to play.

Irish Independent