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Lecturer sacked over TES letter wins tribunal case

Whistle-blower vindicated for revealing financial investigation to press. Richard Dean reports.

GRIMSBY College bosses unfairly sacked a whistle-blowing lecturer who revealed that his college was being investigated for financial irregularities.

Alan Cowood, 48, won his employment tribunal battle after a panel decided he was dismissed unfairly for writing a letter to FE Focus and that his sacking was a "wholly disproportionate" response.

Mr Cowood, now a long-distance lorry-driver, is the second Grimsby College lecturer in a month to win tribunal claims after being sacked for whistle-blowing. A health and safety lecturer, he was sacked for writing to The TES confirming that the college was one of 33 being investigated by the Learning and Skills Council in March 2002.

He also alleged staff were instructed to alter registers and extend the length of courses to make money for the college. But the college rigorously denied his claims and sacked him in June 2002 - two months after the letter appeared. They said it brought the college into disrepute and breached confidentiality.

Mr Cowood said: "I feel vindicated. What happened to me should not have happened. The college brought extreme pressure to bear on us. We are grateful we have been believed. I have been forced to leave education after 21 years."

The tribunal panel concluded that discussion had taken place about altering course registers but that it was not a formal policy. It was proven that no retrospective alterations were made.

In its conclusion, the tribunal stated: "Having regard to all matters, we conclude that in all the circumstances of the case, it was reasonable for Mr Cowood to have made that disclosure to The TES. As a consequence, his dismissal was unfair. Grimsby College is a public authority and, as a consequence, is obliged to act in a way that is compatible with Article 10 of the Convention of Human Rights.

"The TES is a forum for members of the teaching profession to express and exchange views. In our view, the respondents should have respected the applicant's entitlement to participate in that forum.

"In so far as the applicant's letter could be interpreted as suggesting that the college had been guilty of impropriety, the necessity to protect its reputation does not, in the majority's view, include a response of dismissing an employee of 20 years' standing. Such a response is, in our view, wholly disproportionate.

"The college itself could easily have sought to persuade The TES to print a letter, written by the principal, setting out its views. The proportionate response, had it thought it appropriate, would have been to take part in a debate in that same public forum."

The tribunal decided Mr Cowood was entitled to claim protection as a whistle-blower and had not sought to gain reward.

The panel stated: "The TES is a responsible newspaper reporting matters of interest to the teaching profession, and which had already reported an article about this process of investigation that was being pursued.

"This was not a disclosure to a tabloid newspaper with a view to exciting scandal and notoriety."

A spokesperson for the college said: "We are convinced we were left with no alternative but to dismiss Mr Cowood. The college is now taking legal advice as to the outcome of the tribunal."

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