North Birmingham College has joined the growing ranks of education institutions facing employment tribunals under new laws designed to protect whistleblowers.
Ian Walker, a business studies lecturer who was made redundant last summer at around the time he made complaints against senior management to the Department for Education and Employment, has lodged his case with the local employment tribunal. His potential landmark case is being supported by the Free Representation Unit of the Law School at the University of Central England, and lecturers' union Natfhe. And he has the backing of Birmingham MP Lynne Jones.
Last month The THES reported on controversy surrounding the rise of North Birmingham deputy principal Ian Douglas, promoted to an unadvertised senior post less than a year after joining the college as personnel assistant, and made deputy principal, again without the post being advertised, a year later.
Mr Walker objected to the way Mr Douglas was promoted and in May 1998 complained to ministers. Mr Walker had asked for anonymity, but the college got copies of correspondence between him and ministers.
It is unclear when the college first became aware of Mr Walker's identity as the complainant, but it was certainly before his appeal against redundancy was heard.
Following a redundancy process that began in May 1999, Mr Walker and one other member of the business studies lecturing staff were chosen for redundancy in June 1999. Mr Walker's appeal was heard on June 20, but Lynne Jones had received confirmation on June 15 from the then chair of governors, Jim Dixon, that the college had been copied in correspondence between Mr Walker and ministers.
Under North Birmingham's redundancy procedures, the principal hears staff appeals. But Mr Walker and his supporters have complained that for North Birmingham principal Joan Short to hear his appeal, when she was aware of his role in questioning college promotion procedures, was against the principles of natural justice. The college rejected this, with the clerk to governors, Clive Parsons, saying: "The corporation has no reason to believe that the principal would be anything other than fair and unbiased."
The college did, however, offer Mr Walker the chance to have a member of corporation sit in as an observer for an appeal hearing.
Mr Walker believes that Mrs Short might also have been influenced against him. At the beginning of the redundancy process in May, she had called a meeting of the college's staff to explain why business studies had been selected for redundancies.
In an emotional meeting in which she also defended herself against a Natfhe vote of no confidence against her and senior managers, she revealed that a group of trainee inspectors from the Further Education Funding Council had condemned business studies at the college with a poor inspection grade for teaching and learning. She said that listening to the trainees' feedback was "the worst experience of [her] life".
Mr Walker and five business school colleagues lodged a group complaint against Mrs Short for publicly attacking them on the basis of a confidential report compiled by trainees. The FEFC has confirmed that trainees go into colleges for "purely training events", and "any reports are confidential to the inspectorate" and irrelevant to college inspections.
Natfhe has also complained, in a motion of no confidence, that the branch "deplores this management's decision to declare redundancies in business studies without giving any realistic opportunity to address the underlying problems" and it said that there had been no "proper procedure" in place.
The college's solicitor, Eversheds, told The THES this week that it would be "inappropriate" to comment on tribunal proceedings, but that the only reason for Mr Walker's dismissal was redundancy.