FE principal forced out

THE principal of Coatbridge College has effectively fallen on his sword in a dramatic exit following a damning HMI report - the first which rated a college management as "unsatisfactory".

Norman Williamson, who was a columnist with The TES Scotland, resigned last Friday - the first principal to go in such circumstances (although previous principals at Inverness, Reid Kerr and Clydebank colleges left amid financial crises).

There was immediate speculation that Mr Williamson was forced out by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, one of whose key board members, John Gray, has lately become chairman of the Coatbridge College board. The Association of Scottish Colleges says it is now seeking a meeting with the council to express its "acute concerns".

Suspicion of collusion between the council and the board to sack Mr Williamson in a brutally swift move was heightened by an elliptical statement from Roger McClure, the funding council's chief executive, who said: "I have already met with the college chair to discuss the review and I am confident that the right steps are being taken to address HMI's recommendations."

The statement made no reference to discussing the future of the college with Mr Williamson and he resigned as the ink was barely drying on Mr McClure's remarks.

Funding council sources deny emphatically that Mr Gray was "parachuted in" to do a hatchet job on Mr Williamson and say the approach to join the board had come from the college (he has close family ties with Coatbridge). Sources point out that other council members are also members of boards of management.

The problems at Coatbridge were exacerbated by the fact that the college had been without a board chairman for almost two years since the previous incumbent resigned in November 2000, one of the factors which will have increased the pressures on Mr Williamson.

The ASC is highly critical of HMI for not taking this and other factors into account, including one of the longest-running industrial disputes in the FE sector which Mr Williamson inherited from his predecessor. The inspectorate did acknowledge that relations between senior management at the college and staff were "strained" (inspectors had to pull out of the college during their visit in January last year because of industrial action).

The association is believed to be alarmed at the implications of the episode for the security of principals' posts, at a time when the demands of the job are growing - although this will induce many a wry smile among college staff that their sense of insecurity is now being shared by those at the top.

In its comments on the college's leadership, HMI stated: "There was no corporate vision for development of the college's curriculum. Most staff did not understand the college's strategic aims, and did not know how they were expected to contribute to achieving them. Some operational objectives had been set for middle managers but not for curriculum teams.

"There were targets for student recruitment and retention but not for curriculum development or student attainment."

Among other faults noted were a "static" curriculum unresponsive to labour market information, insufficient leadership on educational matters, no "coherent college-wide vision" to improve access, unreliable performance indicators and ineffective evaluation of teaching and learning.

On relations with staff, HMI spread the blame to include the college board as well as the former principal. "Communication with staff was too limited . . . (It) operated through the line management structure. It was barely adequate within some areas of the college and ineffective in others."

The Coatbridge board met on Tuesday and appointed Alice Corner, the college's senior director, as acting principal.

TOP MARKS FOR LEARNING

The report does acknowledge that the college was beginning to tackle many of its shortcomings and, despite stinging criticisms of the way it was led, inspectors found that teaching and learning in all seven subjects they examined was very good or good.

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