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Whistleblower role revamped

Further education leaders have stepped back from requiring clerks to governing bodies to blow the whistle on corruption.

New guidance from the Further Education Funding Council instead strongly recommends that corporations award their clerks the power to turn to the FEFC for advice in a crisis. The original proposal was opposed by the two leading FE organisations who feared it would hand clerks too much power to act over the heads of governors.

But the actual guidelines circumvent the problem by advising college governors to negotiate a strategy with the clerks for coping with serious disagreements.

Governing bodies can give clerks the authority to turn to the FEFC for advice in a serious disagreement over legal powers. Alternatively, they can agree to follow a recommendation from the clerk to contact the FEFC itself.

These methods would only be used after clerks had exhausted the procedure of warning governors about their concerns.

The funding council, which published College Governance - A Guide for Clerks this week, is urging colleges to adopt mechanisms to ensure propriety in the run-up to the publication of the second report by the Nolan Committee on standards in public life. The sector is under the spotlight as part of the committee's inquiry into the management of local public-spending bodies, including colleges.

When proposals to cast clerks as whistleblowers were unexpectedly unveiled by FEFC leaders at Nolan committee hearings last autumn, sector leaders warned it could create "spies in the camp", undermining the authority of principals and chairs of corporations.

The issue of probity is a thorny one following well-publicised past examples of mismanagement, notably at Derby College, Wilmorton, and St Philip's RC Sixth Form College in Birmingham.

This week, Colleges' Employers' Forum chief executive Roger Ward said the new rules were "the best compromise we were able to reach". However, he is known to be still unhappy with the guidance, which he sees as an encroachment by FEFC on colleges' independence.

Ruth Gee, chief executive at the Association for Colleges, said: "I think the FEFC has gone some way to meeting our concerns. But we hope that no college ever finds itself in this position."

FEFC chairman Sir Robert Gunn confirmed the significance being placed on the clerk's role as custodian of good practice in corporations' affairs. The job usually went unnoticed as long as things were running well, he said.

"But without effective clerking, the risk things will go wrong is ever present."

The 68-page guide has been produced by a working group made up of college chairs, clerks and principals.

It underlines the role of the clerk in ensuring the openness and probity sure to be demanded in the Nolan report. To be effective, the clerk must be independent of the governors, and therefore cannot be a member of the governing body. He or she should be given access to all aspects of corporation business to avoid a situation where governors act illegally through lack of advice.

Clerks should also guide governors to ensure they declare interests, say the guidelines.

Colleges are still not obliged to maintain a register of members' interests, but where one exists clerks should keep them up-to-date. They are also responsible for maintaining a code of conduct for the governing body.

Clerks must ensure the public has access to copies of agendas, papers and minutes of each meeting.

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