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College criticised over sex inquiry;FE Focus

David Blunkett accepts St Austell College mismanage investigating complaints against a lecturer. Ngaio Crequer reports

A confidential report into the way a college handled an allegation of a serious sexual assault has been suppressed for more than a year.

Education Secretary David Blunkett accepts that the college was guilty of mismanagement in its handling of the investigation. Funding chiefs this week also told The TES a report on the "lessons learned" would be published.

However, Opposition MPs and the lecturers' union, NATFHE, fear that the report's findings will be played down.

The report follows an investigation by Professor Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of Southampton University, into St Austell College's handling of an allegation made by one member of staff against another. A copy of the report was leaked to The TES but the college's solicitors blocked efforts to publish its findings last week.

Professor Newby was called in after the then education secretary Gillian Shephard consulted the Further Education Funding Council. Complaints had been made to the minister about the college's disciplinary and grievance procedures.

Matthew Taylor, Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell, has long campaigned for the report's publication. He believes the police should have investigated the original allegation.

Correspondence shows why education ministers have delayed publication of the report. A DFEE official wrote: "We consulted those most directly affected by the contents of the report about its publication. A number of the responses to the consultation raised issues about the accuracy and balance of aspects of it. The comments having been made, the Secretary of State could not ignore them.

"To ensure that those who are the subject of criticism are treated as fairly as possible, particularly when their conduct will be held up to further public scrutiny after publication, Professor Newby has been asked to consider their comments.

"We expect to receive his observations within the next few weeks and we shall then need to consider any amendments that may need to be made to the report and the manner of its publication.

"I should, however, make clear that none of this consideration of points of detail affects the Secretary of State's decision that mismanagement took place at the college, a finding that the college has accepted."

The Newby review was announced in July 1996. At the time the FEFC pledged that: "Any lessons to the benefit of the further education sector emerging from the review will be made public."

Professor Newby produced his report in February 1997. This week a spokesman for the FEFC said: "A report will be published which will disseminate the lessons to be learned about this case."

The lengthy delay is causing huge frustration in the sector as colleges are left unclear on key governance issues. These include questions about the role of senior management in pursuing disciplinary matters, the extent of governors' involvement, and whether or when police should be called in to investigate serious allegations.

When the review was set up Matthew Taylor questioned how far governing bodies should be allowed to be judge and jury.

Colleges are anxious not to give the Government any ammunition to question their freedom to regulate their own affairs. They know ministers are keen to claw-back some powers from colleges to promote regional planning.

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