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'Undermined' principal may sue for damages

Nottinghamshire LSCacted beyond remit, says independent inquiry.

Ngaio Crequer reports

A learning and skills council acted beyond its powers in calling for college resignations and in approaching an external manager to take over, according to an independent report.

The report into the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Ahmed Choonara as principal of South Nottingham college shows that Nottinghamshire LSC fell short of national procedures for supporting a college in trouble.

Jim Donaldson, former chief inspector of the Further Education Funding Council, was asked by the national LSC to investigate complaints made by Mr Choonara. He had rejected the findings of an earlier inquiry by David Hughes, then executive director of Derbyshire LSC, and appointed last week as acting executive director for Nottinghamshire LSC.

He said he wanted an independent investigation, not one where an executive director was asked to investigate complaints against a neighbouring colleague.

Mr Donaldson upheld three out of four of Mr Choonara's complaints: that Nottinghamshire LSC, through its chair Duncan Sedgewick, asked the South Nottingham college chair to resign and asked another governor to take over; that they actually identified someone to take over as acting principal, which was clearly beyond their remit; and they appointed two governors to South Nottingham college before they had completed their internal investigations into the college.

This week Mr Choonara called on Mr Sedgewick to resign because the council had acted beyond its powers. "This is a devastating indictment on the leadership and management of the council."

He added: "I have been advised that I have a strong case for seeking substantial damages from Nottinghamshire LSC though the courts. I am now actively considering this."

The dispute arose after Notts LSC was concerned about the college's financial situation.

A series of meetings were held between the council and the college between October and December 2002. Problems had arisen because of the failure to recruit students, after reducing the number of courses it had contracted out.

In December 2002, the college cash reserves stood at pound;3.391 million, and a potential clawback of pound;3.346m, leaving the college with a cash balance of just pound;45,000.

The cashflow forecast showed that within six months the reserves could be restored to nearly pound;1m. "We acknowledged our short-term financial difficulties, and prepared action to improve our short-term and long-term financial health," said Mr Choonara. "But our request for short-term financial support fell on deaf ears."

Mr Choonara resigned as he felt his professional competence was being undermined. Mr Donaldson's report says: "A request to resign - direct or indirect - to a chairman of a college by a chairman or executive director of a local LSC is clearly beyond the remit of the council."

In early January, Nottinghamshire LSC rang the principal of another college and asked if he was interested in taking over at South Nottingham. To actually identify someone to take over was clearly beyond the council's remit, says Donaldson. There was a difference between advice and direct intervention.

The national LSC said it welcomed any process or investigation that revealed areas for improvement. "South Nottingham college was experiencing severe financial problems and the situation was deteriorating quickly," it said.

"The Nottinghamshire LSC's responsibility was to ensure that the college recovered as quickly as possible, with minimal impact on its provision to students.

"When dealing with colleges in difficulty, our overriding concern is to make sure the colleges are back on track as quickly as possible, delivering high-quality provision while being financially healthy. This means working with them closely, providing advice and recommendations on how recovery will be secured. Our activity relies on colleges providing relevant information in a timely fashion, in a clear way. This had not been the case at South Nottingham college."

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