Offices of trust that must not be abused

February 20, 1998

Further education has been told to clean up its act. Phil Baty reports

Further education leaders will ruin an unprecedented opportunity to put the sector at the heart of the "lifelong learning revolution" if they do not clean up their act, college paymasters have warned.

Education minister Baroness Blackstone told the Further Education Funding Council's annual conference last week that the sector must show "the highest standards of governance and management".

Her words were echoed by the new council chairman, Labour peer Bryan Davies: "Some colleges may still not appreciate the level of public interest, particularly if we succeed in getting wider appreciation of the sector's significance to the nation's well-being. You hold offices of trust which the public will not lightly see abused."

FEFC chief executive David Melville said he had received a spate of letters from principals and chairs of governors wanting to know the precise legal definitions of what is required of them.

"The meeting of legal requirements is a necessary but insufficient basis for good practice. The perception of malpractice is often sufficient to bring a college and the sector into disrepute or to undermine public confidence in the work of a corporation and a college."

But the board of the Association of Colleges has been resisting moves to greater accountability. Last year it lobbied for an exemption for principals and governors from the statutory offence "misuse of public office", proposed by Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life. "It is not easy to recruit governors of the right calibre: the introduction of additional legal hazards would serve as a further disincentive," said the AoC.

Representatives of the Nolan committee, now the Neill committee, moved quickly to dismiss the AoC's plea for clemency against "misuse of public office".

Graham Lane, director of education at the Local Government Association, has been leading the campaign for greater accountability. "The AoC has objected to the Nolan principles. This is wrong," he said. His prime concern is to get locally elected representatives on college governing bodies.

Baroness Blackstone promised to consult on reforms in spring: "We must ensure that all the key stakeholders are represented. An obvious example is local authority membership in view of the agenda for collaboration in 16-19 provision," she said.

Lord Davies thinks the government should, and could, make local authority representation compulsory "overnight" with a statutory instrument. But again the colleges, or a vocal minority, look set to resist. Many are still sore five years after they gained independence from local authorities with the incorporation and the creation of the FEFC in 1992.

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