FoI and tip-offs made our college exposé a class act

Like most local reporters, I’m deluged by information – it flies in via email, phone, fax and, occasionally these days, by letter.

One such communication arrived almost two years ago from a seething insider at Doncaster College. It was a complex jumble of complaints about the way the further education centre had been managed.

As a part-time member of a small editorial team, I am already stretched juggling news and features, and the temptation was to sling the missive – erm, I mean file it – in my creaking in tray.

Actually that’s exactly what I did until word reached us via another channel that the college had run up a sizeable deficit. Ah, here was a tangible starting point.

This wasn’t a story about a single establishment. The college was a lead player, along with the council, in the £100m Doncaster Education City (DEC) project – the biggest capital-education scheme in the country and lauded as being the key to improving life chances for local teenagers. At the centre was a new college building, fed by five community campuses.

I discovered there had been an investigation by the Learning and Skills Council into the crisis and used the Freedom of Information Act to request the reports.

The contents were explosive – revealing that, despite a costly feasibility study, the satellite bases had secretly been axed because school heads had refused to sign up to the scheme. Yet it was these centres on which the viability of the vastly expensive, publicly-funded enterprise had rested.

We broke the story, which, in turn, brought in further tip-offs from other sources about lavish spending associated with DEC.

I fished out that original letter and, over the next few months, by picking my way through college papers on site and making further use of FoI, I gradually built up enough for our splash: ‘A lesson in how to spend (other people’s) money”.

It detailed £1m on consultants, a pay hike from £90,000 to £135,000 for the college’s former principal and thousands of pounds on luxury flights. These included a private jet chartered for elected mayor Martin Winter to fly from Bournemouth to Doncaster to attend a meeting. Along the way, I broke stories that the current principal had been fired and paid off with an undisclosed sum. The associated legal fees added up to £85,000.

The mayor hit back, labelling us a ‘riff-raff’newspaper, and the LSC maintained education standards in the borough were being raised. However, August this year brought a damning Ofsted report which judged the college – now installed in its new building, which was £6m over budget – to be failing in four out of five key areas.

Governors were accused of inappropriately using public funds by making payments to senior post-holders on departure. Four governors including the chair resigned, and the LSC threatened to scrap funding for the college if it failed to improve.

There is more to be uncovered about the affair, which has again put Doncaster under the spotlight, for the wrong reasons. It was tainted by the ‘Donnygate’corruption scandal in the mid-Nineties, which led to jail sentences for a senior Labour councillor and a property developer found guilty of bribing him.

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