The recent demonstration involving past and present lecturers at Manchester College of Arts and Technology (Mancat) reflected anger over alleged bullying that has simmered since 2001.
Despite claims by management that the workforce is "highly satisfied", FE Focus has uncovered evidence that staff teaching English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) have long felt demoralised and intimidated.
The issue came to a head in June 2002 when a grievance against departmental head Marina Parha, signed by 10 lecturers - around half the department - was delivered to vice-principal Barbara Forshaw. This covered matters relating to working conditions, contracts, staff meetings and management's attitude to staff.
"Lack of respect and rudenessI is the norm," the grievance stated. "There have been cases of staff, particularly new and newly-qualified or inexperienced staff beingI threatened and verbally humiliated rather than supported. The emphasis has been on persistent fault-finding." At her exit interview in October 2001, one lecturer read from an indictment of life within ESOL to Mancat personnel manager Andrea Anthony.
It was, she said, "difficult to convey the indignity and humiliation felt by (ESOL) members. There is an atmosphere of institutional fear, oppression and intimidation."
The grievance letter triggered tense exchanges and meetings in June and July 2002 between lecturers and management.
The atmosphere was further strained by the sacking of lecturer Peter Adams.
On June 25 last year, 14 ESOL staff signed a letter to principal Peter Tavernor in protest. They claimed Mr Adams was "extremely committed to his department and students". But in its dismissal letter Mancat alluded to "a breakdown in the managed relationship and a lack of trust".
Minutes taken at a meeting held on June 26 2002 by one ESOL lecturer recorded deputy principal Barbara Forshaw admitting some issues needed investigating.
At a further meeting on July 2, Ms Forshaw suggested there were a lot of "inexperienced" staff within ESOL; that there was something "dysfunctional" about the team; and that some ESOL staff were intimidated by others.
In July 2002, college Natfhe branch secretary Geoff Brown sent two letters to assistant principal Julie Milad seeking to invoke the collective disputes procedure.
Ms Milad replied in September that management had investigated and that the allegations had been dealt with "in an appropriate manner".
She declined to recognise the matter as an appropriate use of the procedure.
But, while management sought to draw a line under the grievance process, discontent persisted among ESOL staff.
When lecturer Alex Stevenson gave in his notice to Marina Parha in January this year, he wrote: "Many colleagues are under unacceptable stress. The relationship between management and some staff is characterised by a lack of courtesy and even rudeness."
In March, Natfhe rep Geoff Brown received a letter from principal Peter Tavernor condemning as "unprofessional" a union survey of nine ESOL staff conducted in August 2002 in which alleged bullying once more emerged.
Mr Tavernor claimed that every member of staff tendering resignation was offered an exit interview at which concerns were investigated. "It is clear that issues which have been raised have been resolved," he said.
"The (ESOL) staff are, in the main, young and inexperienced and require a great deal of support to assist them to meet college standards. Staff have been informed to seek assistance through the management structure or via the personnel department if they have continuing concerns. No issues have been raised, however."
One member of the ESOL staff who had been at Mancat for two years recently handed in her notice and has since been signed off work with stress. "I was expected to work over my contract hours for the year. That was never resolved," she said.
"One of the main problems was that during the summer they had been using some trainee teachers who weren't qualified. No paperwork was done until main-grade lecturers got back.
"There was a six-week backlog - the workload was ridiculous. When we got back we were expected to enrol new students, teach and clear up the mess."
Mancat insists no evidence has been produced to substantiate any claim of bullying.
DRIVEN TO TEARS BY REVIEW
Laura McMenemie loves her work but came to hate her job. She went to work as an ESOLlecturer at Mancat in June 2002. A year later, she says, she was driven to hand in her notice.
"Mancat was starting to destroy my love of teaching," she said. "And I did well over my contract hours. You weren't allowed to cancel classes. When a teacher went sick you had to pick up that class at the last minute and teach it.
Ms McMenemie's diary records a review meeting on June 3 2003, in the presence of three managers, that reduced her to tears. It lasted four hours during which, she says, her paperwork was pulled apart. "I consider myself even-keeled but I'd lose sleep over those meetings."
SACKED WITHOUT WARNING
Peter Field, with more than 20 years' experience, came to Mancat in the summer of 2002 as an ESOL lecturer. Within three months he was, he says, sacked without warning. He struggled with paperwork, particularly tracking the programme of rolling enrolment.
"I was given nine hours a week to cope, but doing six to seven hours a week extra," he said. "I was told how to keep records, but wrongly." He had no inkling that his job was at risk. "During my three months, management never came to observe my teaching. I thought I was a popular teacher, and an innovative one," he said.
"At sacking time I was called for what I thought was a chat. Without having had a warning letter I had no opportunity to defend myself."
'PROSPECT OF WORK MADE ME FEEL ILL'
As a Natfhe union rep, Hardip Kaur felt she was in the firing line. She was once asked by managers whether her activism got in the way of her work; also if she knew about "rumours of bullying and intimidation".
"I replied that personally I felt bullied and intimidated," said Ms Kaur.
"These were not merely rumours - several people in ESOL had been to the union about it." Ms Kaur recalled her anxiety when a meeting loomed to discuss issues arising from her appraisal. "I felt so depressed that I went home, drew the curtains and sat in the dark alone. The prospect of going in to work at Mancat made me feel ill."
At her exit meeting in December 2002, she again alluded to "a culture of bullying and intimidation" within ESOL.
A written reply from personnel manager Andrea Anthony on January 20 this year denied this was the case. "A great deal of management support has been invested in investigating such allegations," Ms Anthony wrote. "It is easy to confuse strong management with bullying, and that was our conclusion."