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Mystery watchdog who leads a quiet life

Ferocious spending cuts, mismanagement scandals and outbreaks of industrial conflict are regular features of Britain's beleaguered further education colleges. Yet the man charged with hearing complaints about the organisation controlling the sector's #163;3 billion budget - the Further Education Funding Council - leads a quiet life.

John Bevan, former college lecturer, Inner London Education Authority official and Association of Colleges officer, is the FEFC ombudsman, contacted by way of a Post Office box number in Tunbridge Wells.

In his first year, he did not receive a single complaint. He inherited one outstanding complaint which was later dropped, another termed outside his remit. He refuses to say if he has dealt with any complaints since.

Most people have no idea he exists. Others say a climate of fear gags any potential complainers.

People are reluctant to challenge the FEFC, one leading further education figure said: "They don't want to be seen making too much fuss because of a fear that there could be repercussions."

The role of ombudsman was created by the FEFC two years ago in the run-up to the landmark Nolan report, laying the foundations for an all-out attack on the corruption seeping into the heart of the FE sector. Lord Nolan demanded more accountability in the way colleges were run and a right for whistleblowers to speak up without fear of victimisation.

The new ombudsman's existence was heralded by a circular sent to colleges,and an account of his activities appear in the FEFC's annual report. But to most people he remains invisible.

Chris Wilson, vice-chair of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' further education committee, says: "There is a lot of discontent in the sector and a problem of low morale. If we had been aware of the ombudsman we might have used that route to try and resolve some of these problems. But people are completely unaware he exists."

College lecturers are not the only ones to question Mr Bevan's role. The British and Irish Association of Ombudsmen is unsure whether he can properly be described as one of their number. It says Mr Bevan cannot be fully independent because he was appointed by the FEFC, the organisation he is supposed to oversee.

The reasons for Mr Bevan's quiet life are obvious in the small print of his job description. His terms of reference are tightly limited to institutions - colleges, not individuals - making complaints. They can object to the way the FEFC has made a decision, but not with what it has decided. And the ombudsman has to be satisfied that all other means of resolving the dispute have been exhausted before he will consider it. A college could go to the ombudsman, for example, if it thought it had not been properly consulted over a reorganisation, but not if it simply disagreed with the outcome of merger proposals. It could complain about not being treated fairly in an inspection, but could not expect any help from the ombudsman just because it disagreed with the results.

Mr Bevan's job is to judge whether the FEFC has followed the correct procedures, not to gainsay what it decides.

"My job is to consider any complaint from a college about the council's administration which can't be resolved any other way," he says. "A lot of the concerns and arguments in FE are inside the colleges, usually between staff and management. There may be considerable disagreement about the outcome of a decision by the FEFC, but if it has been taken according to due process, it is not my territory."

Several high-profile cases of mismanagement in FE colleges in recent years have led to calls for an ombudsman with a much more wide-ranging brief. The House of Commons select committee on education in its recent report recommended the appointment of an ombudsman to deal with complaints from students and staff. And it said the FEFC's duty to ensure probity should be clarified and strengthened.

Such an appointment was needed, the committee's chair Margaret Hodge said recently, "to counter tales of corruption and mismanagement in colleges which tarnished the sector as a whole."

The proposal is likely to gain wide support in a sector looking for ways to sort out its deep-rooted problems. Dr John Guy, chair of the Association of Colleges' 16-19 committee and principal of Farnborough sixthform college has experience of the kind of dispute which has hit the headlines.

He was principal of St Phillips sixth-form college in Birmingham five years ago when it became embroiled in a row which ended with a government inquiry and the dismissal of two governors. "It was very difficult to get anyone to hear our case," he says. "It would have been very useful if there had been someone whose job it was to listen."

Judy Vegh, principal of Hastings college of arts and technology, says:

"People have been very worried about the scandals in some colleges. An ombudsman for the whole sector would give them the chance to turn to someone if all else fails."

Dan Taubman, a national official with the college lecturers' union NATFHE, says that despite an improvement in the industrial relations climate since the departure of former Association of Colleges chief Roger Ward and the arrival of the Labour government, college staff are still victimised for speaking out.

"There is the need for an external figure like an ombudsman who staff can turn to in confidence, knowing that if there were any substance to their complaint, it would be taken up," he says. "The powers of the current ombudsman are far too limited to be of much use to anyone."

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