A question of principal

November 26, 1999

'The two most senior of Mr Douglas's posts were never advertised. Article seven of colleges' statutory instruments states that a vacancy for "a senior post shall be advertised nationally"'.

Ministers have been taking a close interest in controversy surrounding the meteoric rise of Ian Douglas, a personnel assistant who was promoted to deputy principal at North Birmingham College in just two years. They may also be interested to learn that the lecturer who first raised concerns about Mr Douglas's career development has now been dismissed.

A four-year row over Mr Douglas's rapid promotion has involved five MPs, three ministers and has seen the college funding council censured for "misinforming" the Department for Education and Employment. Mr Douglas joined North Birmingham College as a personnel assistant in 1994. A few months later, he was made personnel manager, and he became director of personnel less than a year after. He is now deputy principal and director of resources.

The controversy has centred not on Mr Douglas's suitability for the posts, but on whether his appointments were fair, or indeed lawful. The two most senior of Mr Douglas's posts were never advertised. Article seven of colleges' statutory instruments - their legal rules of governance - states that a vacancy for "a senior post shall be advertised nationally".

On initial investigation of the appointments last year, then lifelong learning minister Kim Howells was told by the funding council that Mr Douglas's senior position was not officially designated as a "senior post", so his appointment was not subject to rules governing senior appointments. The case was apparently closed. But the Further Education Funding Council subsequently accepted that it had "misinformed" the DFEE. Investigations began again.

The case was again apparently closed when the college told the then new lifelong learning minister, George Mudie, that Mr Douglas's promotion to director of personnel arose from a 1995 management restructure in which no new posts were created. There was therefore never a senior "vacancy", the college argued, so again, there was no legal necessity to open Mr Douglas's promotion to external competition.

But while the college has said that there were five senior posts both before and after the restructure, it accepts that before the restructure two of the five posts were unoccupied and dormant. These were filled after the restructure, increasing the senior management team from three to five, including Mr Douglas.

Mr Douglas's rise to deputy principal came almost exactly a year later when Joan Short, the college principal, sacked two senior managers. While one of the two vacant positions was advertised, the post of deputy principal was not, and Mr Douglas was appointed without competition.

The college and its critics are now looking to lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks to make a final decision on the letter and spirit of the law. Whatever his decision, lecturers' union Natfhe has made its views known.

In June this year Mrs Short and Mr Douglas were condemned for "incompetence" in a vote of no confidence by Natfhe. The ballot followed a staff survey in which 88 per cent of respondents said that senior management were "devoid of integrity". Natfhe also condemned a redundancy plan, and claimed that procedures had not been followed.

One of only two members of staff made compulsorily redundant was lecturer Ian Walker, who was the whistleblower who first wrote to the DFEE expressing concern about Mr Douglas's appointments. His identity as the complainant was somehow made known to the college, despite his request for anonymity.

Although Mrs Short conceded that she felt Mr Walker's persistent complaints to ministers amounted to "harassment", she denied that she had victimised him for raising concerns about probity. She said the college had followed a redundancy "selection process which was very clear with very open criteria".

Mrs Short said that any remaining controversy about Mr Douglas's appointments were "in Mr Walker's head". "As far as I'm concerned there is no problem, and there is no problem with the DFEE."

Want to blow the whistle?

Contact Phil Baty on

020 7782 3298

or email

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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