Bring on the ombudsman

An interesting parliamentary question slipped out over the summer. Will the Secretary of State refer complaints about the Learning and Skills Council to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, asked Paul Holmes, Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield?

According to Margaret Hodge, then education minister, the council will be brought under the jurisdiction of the ombudsman "in the near future... In the meantime the Learning and Skills Council does have systems in place for handling complaints and the overwhelming majority are dealt with effectively." Well, how are we to know? Because the LSC is not exactly fast in coming forward about complaints, and certainly has no track record in publishing the results of investigations.

The Association of Colleges, the Association of College Managers, Natfhe, the lecturers' union, and the Network for Black Managers have all in the past been concerned that no transparent and, most importantly, independent system of adjudication for complaints seems to exist.

This week's story about the resignation of the principal of South Nottingham college is a case in point. Ahmed Choonara complained that the Nottinghamshire learning and skills council exceeded its powers when it intervened in his college, and went against published policy.

He also complained about the conduct, language and behaviour of Rob Valentine, the Notts LSC executive director.

The LSC response was to appoint another LSC executive director 13 miles down the road, to investigate the complaints. Whatever the merits of that investigation, to Mr Choonara, this was not an independent investigation and should have been conducted by someone external to the LSC. It smacked of the often criticised police investigating police complaints system.

In a separate case, earlier this year the national LSC said it was investigating a complaint regarding Notts LSC, and was in correspondence with a complainant about another issue relating to the local council. But the national council did not respond when asked the result of the investigation.

The LSC subsequently said it would set up an independent investigation into the management style at Notts LSC.

As for Mr Choonara, because of his continued disquiet about the handling of his complaints Jim Donaldson, former chief inspector of the Further Education Funding Council, has now been called in. Crucially, though, the national LSC has said his job is not to re-investigate the original complaints. The ombudsman cannot come too soon.

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