SPARSHOLT College has said it acted speedily to thwart two conmen who have been jailed for six and seven years.

The two ex-professional footballers scammed £5 million from schools and colleges, including Sparsholt, through a bogus sports leadership scheme.

Mark Aizlewood, 58, and Paul Sugrue, 56, promised to help youngsters gain an NVQ in activity leadership.

In reality, hundreds of the students on their books did not even exist, many lived at the opposite end of the country from the training scheme, while others were doing just two to three hours of study a week.

Tim Jackson, college principal, said: “We condemn the deliberate deceit and criminal actions of these fraudsters who have either admitted their guilt or been convicted and we hope this acts as a deterrent. The college is pleased to have fully co-operated with the Serious Fraud Office throughout this long and complex investigation and subsequent trial.

“The fraudulent elements of Luis Michael Training Ltd (LMT) activities were identified in October 2010 and we immediately reported our suspicions about them to funding authorities, the police and subsequently, the Serious Fraud Office. Our prompt actions in spotting and reporting the fraud, whilst alerting other colleges working with LMT at that time, prevented the fraud escalating.

“The college worked tirelessly to ensure as many as possible of those learners who were let down by the fraud in 2010 were able to complete their apprenticeships.”

At Southwark Crown Court, Judge David Tomlinson said the scheme involved “eye-watering sums of Government money” under the pretext of helping disadvantaged people.

“This was quite simply shameful exploitation,” he said, adding: “There was a serious detrimental effect on colleges of further education.”

Aizlewood, from Aberdare, Mid Glamorgan, was acquitted of a second count of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation.

Aizlewood and Sugrue, from Cardiff - along with fellow directors Keith Williams, 45, from Cemaes Bay, Anglesey, and Christopher Martin, 53, from Catmore, in West Berkshire - submitted false accounts to colleges to persuade them to do business with the firm.

They promised the colleges it was the perfect opportunity for “Neets”, or youngsters not in employment, education or training, to gain a qualification.

Williams was also convicted of two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation, and was sentenced to four years in prison, while Martin was sentenced to five years and three months.

Football coach Jack Harper, 30, from Southport, Merseyside, was convicted of fraud and using a false instrument.

He was acquitted of another count of conspiracy to commit false representation.

Harper was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Martin admitted two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation ahead of trial, along with Stephen Gooding, 53, from Bridgwater, Somerset, who admitted one charge.

Gooding was sentenced to 20 months in jail.

The company enrolled suitable apprentices to claim money from the colleges, which in turn received funding from the Government-run Learning and Skills Council (LSC), later renamed the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

Gooding and Harper, who were employed in the business, helped funnel new learners into the scheme.

Some of the bogus students were sourced from a summer football camp run by Harper, who secretly enrolled students to apprenticeships without their knowledge or consent.

LM Training even got sixth formers on work experience in its office to complete tests on behalf of learners, to make it seem like they had the minimum level of maths and English competency.

The work experience students were told they were just practice papers.

When the scam unravelled, the Skills Funding Agency demanded its money back, leaving large deficits in the budgets of many schools.