FEFC set to ignore its ombudsman

March 24, 2000

College funding chiefs were set to defy their ombudsman this week, with a plan to reject his recommendation that they apologise for a "breach of natural justice".

John Bevan, the Further Education Funding Council's ombudsman, rebuked the council for ignoring the rights of the sacked governors at Wirral Metropolitan College. He said the FEFC's failure to allow the former governors an opportunity to comment on critical findings published in an inspection report "fell well short of the duty" of the council.

In January 1999 the FEFC recommended that the entire board of governors should be sacked by the secretary of state David Blunkett in order to "safeguard public funds" and they resigned. The principal, Jenny Shackleton, took early retirement, at a cost to the college of Pounds 169,000, leaving it almost Pounds 9 million in debt.

Just months after the mass resignations, the FEFC's inspectorate visited the college and damned the quality of management and governance in its subsequent inspection report with the worst possible grades.

But Mr Bevan has asked the FEFC not only to apologise for failing to allow the former governors a right to reply to the inspection report, but also to confirm that they "unfailingly met the standards of commitment and integrity required in respect of governance of colleges".

At an FEFC council meeting as The THES went to press, the officers were expected to urge the board to reject the ombudsman's findings and refuse to adhere to his recommendations. "We will not accept the findings and we will not apologise," said a source close to the proceedings.

The FEFC is concerned that accepting Mr Bevan's recommendation to confirm that the governors acted with integrity would undermine the decision to demand their dismissal for failing to exercise proper stewardship of the college. "How can we now say their stewardship was fine?"

The FEFC also believes that if it were to apologise for failing to consult the departed governors, it would set a precedent that would make the work of its inspectorate impossible. "If we had to go back and talk to every member of a college's staff who had been sacked, retired or had left," said the source, "we'd never publish any inspection reports." It is understood that the council will agree a token acceptance of the ombudsman's report, as a compromise, but would stand firm on key elements.

The FEFC is not bound by any decisions of its ombudsman.

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