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Cloak of anonymity may be cut for Charter

People who complain of alleged college failures should not expect to hide behind a cloak of confidentiality, further education funding chiefs warned this week.

The Further Education Funding Council has reached its conclusions after detailed consultations over the effectiveness of the Charter for FE. The appeals system against colleges which failed to meet student expectations was launched last spring as part of Prime Minister John Major's Citizen's Charter.

A report on the consultations reveals considerable concern within the council over the use of the charter to sidestep establish-ed procedures for complaint within the colleges.

One student who failed to gain a teaching certificate objected to the council because assessment was allegedly unfair. But, after initial enquiries, the council refused to investigate further because the person had not exhausted the college's own procedures.

The student then found that it was too late to take up the offer of an appeal to the college's academic board. Given the circumstances of the case, the FEFC concluded, the college had acted reasonably.

When a parent complained that his son was unfairly excluded from college, the FEFC accepted that the college was in breach of its duties. But it accepted the college's arguments that this had been rectified, and went on to rule against the parent for failing to provide adequate documentary evidence.

Neglecting to exhaust complaints procedures was the single biggest cause of failure for students and other interested parties complaining about colleges. This is revealed in an analysis of 26 cases investigated between May 1995 and February 1996, detailed in the consultation paper.

Proposals including the extension of powers of investigation under the charter to include all activities, whether or not they were funded by the FEFC, were supported by over 90 per cent of colleges which responded to the survey.

But more than one in four insisted there were no circumstances under which confidentiality was justified. The council insists, however, that there are exceptional circumstances where confidentiality is justified, particularly if many individuals are affected or where there is evidence that action would be taken against the person for complaining.

Sir William Stubbs, departing chief executive of the FEFC, cautions against this wherever possible. "The council, however, accepts that confidential complaints will be more difficult to handle and the procedure has been expanded to clarify the circumstances in which a complaint may be made on a confidential basis," he says in the consultation report.

The council can only prevail on a college to think again. Any order to reverse a decision made against an individual can only be made by the secretary of state.

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