Principal fights on in war of insults

17th October 2003 at 01:00
LSC to hold new inquiry into South Notts college. Ngaio Crequer reports

A principal was told by a Blearning and skills chief: "If I was in your position I would chuck myself in the river."

Rob Valentine, executive director of Nottinghamshire Learning and Skills Council, made the unsolicited remark in January to Ahmed Choonara, principal of South Nottingham college.

Mr Choonara, who later resigned as principal, complained that Mr Valentine's language was offensive, and "tantamount to personal and professional harassment, especially in the presence of governors of the college".

He also said the LSC intervened in college affairs in clear breach of its own procedures. He added that it put out a press release relating to the college's funding which was inaccurate.

Mr Choonara complained to John Harwood, then the LSC chief executive. David Hughes, executive director of Derbyshire LSC, investigated. He found a difference of opinion about the way the "river" phrase was used.

Mr Choonara's "version of how the phrase was used makes it sound like a personal attack, while Rob Valentine's version, which was backed up by one of the governors, makes it sound more like a vivid way of showing how serious Mr Valentine believed that situation to be. Two governors were of the view that it was not an inappropriate phrase to use, while the chair felt it was insensitive," according to the private and confidential report of Mr Hughes.

He added: "The evidence is clear that Mr Valentine used a direct and challenging approach to the meetings highlighted by you but at no time acted inappropriately towards you."

Mr Choonara felt the local LSC had exaggerated the college's financial problems, and had not considered papers it had drawn up to remedy shortcomings.

But Mr Hughes did not uphold the complaints, except in two instances. He said the LSC had clawed back funding without properly informing the college, and it had also put out an inaccurate press release. Mr Hughes apologised on behalf of the LSC.

Kevin Shine, the chair of governors at South Nottingham, resigned at the same time as Mr Choonara in January. This week the national LSC said that Mr Shine had not resigned in protest.

The minutes of the corporation meeting, on January 9, say: "Kevin Shine was called to a meeting with Duncan Sedgwick (chair of Notts LSC) on Tuesday, January 7 where he was informed that the LSC would appoint an interim caretaker principal as soon as possible until the outcome of the Nottingham area review was known.

"Mr Sedgwick indicated Mr Shine's resignation was also required. The LSC would also exercise its right to appoint two governors to the corporation.

During Mr Choonara's time as principal, the college improved teaching and learning grades from 42 per cent grades 1 and 2 to 85 per cent of the top grades. The college is also a Centre of Vocational Excellence.

Mr Choonara told the national LSC that he considered Mr Hughes's investigation to be "grossly inaccurate, judiciously selective, contradictory and totally unacceptable".

The national LSC said in a statement that Jim Donaldson, former chief inspector of the Further Education Funding Council, would investigate "further matters" regarding Notts LSC's intervention. But his remit did not include re-investigating matters considered by Mr Hughes, or the way he carried out his investigation.

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