Anti-sleaze spotlight falls on colleges

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The Independent Online
MPs investigating further education are to examine the case of a lecturer suspended by his college after raising concerns over propriety. Lucy Ward, Education Correspondent, finds the anti-sleaze searchlight trained on colleges as never before.

Guido D'Isidoro is awaiting a disciplinary hearing at Llandrillo College, North Wales, at which he could face dismissal. His crime was to ask questions - first at the college and then at the Welsh Office - over the propriety of the principal and finance director being husband and wife.

Though he did not suggest any financial wrongdoing, Mr D'Isidoro, principal lecturer in business studies and staff development co-ordinator, was concerned that day-to-day management of a pounds 15m annual budget should rest primarily with two such closely linked individuals.

An inquiry ordered by college governors and carried out last July by the college's auditors Price Waterhouse examined whether impropriety had arisen as a result of the relationship between Huw Evans and his wife Gill. After the report found no evidence of wrongdoing, the matter was considered closed pending Mr D'Isidoro's hearing.

But while the college and Welsh Office have all but shut their files on the case, members of the Commons education select committee have called for more details as part of a review of governance and funding in further education.

Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the committee, told The Independent she would be writing to the Welsh colleges' funding and inspection quango over the issue.

The re-emergence of the Llandrillo case is only the latest in a series of events turning the spotlight on probity and governance in further education.

Roger Ward, chief executive of the sector's representative body, the Association of Colleges, is the subject of an independent inquiry following allegations that he had used his position to promote a private healthcare firm and a lecturing agency.

In a Commons debate on further education last month, John Cryer, MP for Horn- church, complained to Kim Howells, lifelong learning minister, over the "considerable power with few checks and balances on its execution" wielded by principals since colleges were made independent of local authority control in 1993.

Mr Cryer cited the case of Braintree College in Essex where the principal and chief executive Martin Bates is also clerk to the college's governing body, and of Doncaster College in South Yorkshire where the clerk was until recently Nina Ashurst, wife of the principal, Terry Ashurst.

Under guidance from the Further Education Funding Council, the clerk has a key role in advising governors on procedures, alerting the governing body if it risks overstepping its powers and ultimately whistleblowing to a higher authority if governors act irregularly.

He or she should "remain detached from the discussions and decisions of the governing body and its committees" and must "be able to preserve independence from the management of the college". The guidance clearly states that the clerk should not be a member of the governing body.

Braintree College confirmed to The Independent on Friday that its principal, who has been both clerk and a member of the governing body since 1993, is to step down as clerk following a meeting with governors early last week to discuss Mr Cryer's comments. However, despite offering to leave the role immediately, he is to stay as clerk until a replacement is appointed.

At Doncaster, advertisements have been placed for a new clerk, though Mr Ashurst insisted his wife had always intended to step down. There was no more risk of impropriety if a principal's spouse acted as clerk than if a senior member of staff dependent on the principal for promotion took on the role, he said.

As the select committee prepares to report on further education next spring, Baroness Blackstone, higher education minister, is considering changes to the articles and instruments by which colleges are governed.