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Governors vote to oust chair

Stoke-on-Trent College is making the headlines again following allegations of a 'bullying' regime. Lucy Ward reports.

The chairman of governors at a college rocked by allegations of management bullying has been ousted by fellow members.

George Mardle resigned this week from the corporation of Stoke-on-Trent College after other governors voted not to co-opt him to the board for another two-year term.

His departure has again highlighted unrest at the college, the second largest in the country which has had a period of rapid growth. A survey by the lecturers' union NATFHE in July unearthed claims that a climate of fear was created by a "dictatorial and bullying" regime.

In a strongly-worded statement issued to The TES, Mr Mardle, a former president of the Association for Colleges, defended his record as board chairman, and claimed he had been pushed out by a small group of governors.

But corporation members dismissed his claims, insisting he had been removed from the board because he had failed to act forcefully over staff complaints of rock-bottom morale and intimidatory management.

Other governors are understood to feel that Mr Mardle gave too much freedom to top management. Staff in the NATFHE survey - which drew responses from 125 lecturers - complained about the management style of Stoke College director Neil Preston. The corporation has already agreed to conduct its own staff attitude survey, and is approaching external agencies to carry it out.

Kevin Farrell, one of the college's independent business governors who was appointed acting chairman until the corporation's annual meeting in November, rejected Mr Mardle's claim that a small group of governors had acted in isolation, insisting there was unanimity. He said: "The reason for the governors acting in the way they did was that there were legitimate concerns and they felt not enough was done to resolve those issues."

The corporation was now likely to set up a sub-committee to examine all the concerns "openly and dispassionately". Complaints related to the college itself, its management and governance and to individuals, Mr Farrell said.

A staff member, who was among several who contacted The TES but asked to remain anonymous, said: "This group of governors has simply responded to the absolutely desperate pleas from all sorts of staff to try to sort out what is going on."

The ousted chairman was seen as "too embroiled" with the college management, the staff member added.

However, Mr Mardle insisted he had done all he legally could to act on concerns raised by staff and fellow board members, though he had been hampered by other governors' failure to produce written evidence of allegations.

"I cannot take action on hearsay," he said. "The college is sound financially and there is no question of impropriety. This is about personality clashes. "

Mr Mardle, chairman at Stoke since 1989, said he had taken legal advice on the issue but had been warned to move extremely cautiously or risk plunging the college into a costly legal action. He had taken steps to strengthen links between management and the governing body, he said, but "a simmering feeling of action not being sufficiently forceful" had remained among some on the board.

He accused governors of failing to understand the role of the corporation in overseeing and monitoring college policy but not interfering in operational matters. And he claimed he would have resigned by Christmas even if he had not been forced out.

Further evidence of staff discontent was due to hit Stoke's corporation this week. Unison, the union representing support staff, has conducted its own survey on morale and conditions. The study, which has yet to be released publicly, is understood to echo the findings of the NATFHE survey.

College director of public relations Caroline Highland said it had been agreed in principle that the next chair of the board would be an independent member of the corporation. The board had thanked Mr Mardle for his service, she added.

Mr Preston declined to comment on the resignation.

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