After Ward, out goes the board

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Ben Russell reports on the resignation of the AOC board

Forlorn and dejected, members of the Association of Colleges board stood in a circle absorbing the impact of a meeting called to shore up their position.

Less then a week later, the overwhelming majority of the board had decided to resign.

The 15-strong board's resolve had crumbled in the face of a straw poll of 300 principals and chairs at the special meeting in Birmingham last week. A staggering 70 per cent called for them to stand down.

Chairman Jim Scrimshaw immediately promised to canvass the full board by telephone, asking whether they would step aside and allow new elections to the body which represents more than 460 colleges in England and Wales. By Tuesday morning Mr Scrimshaw had spoken to all but three. All had decided to resign.

The turbulent events brought to a head weeks of fall-out after the resignation of former AOC chief executive Roger Ward after The TES exposed his improper links with suppliers.

Ever since Mr Ward's departure on January 14 an increasingly influential group of college principals has campaigned quietly for a new start in the world of further education.

They wanted a clean break from the figures who appointed Mr Ward to the old Colleges Employers Forum and later the AOC, and a new mandate for a board widely thought to have mishandled the chief executive's departure.

Within days of Mr Ward's departure, a coalition formed around leading Birmingham and London colleges aimed at gathering the 47 signatures required to order an extraordinary general meeting to call the AOC board to account.

At first few principals were prepared to speak out, arguing that a move against the AOC had to be certain of success to win their support. But within weeks, a diplomatic offensive, carried out largely by e-mail and secret London meetings, had won a hard core of support. Within days the rebel group, with Colin Flint, the widely respected principal of Solihull College, as its unofficial mouthpiece, had gathered 150 names and the support of many more.

Anger increased towards the end of January as it emerged that an AOC letter to colleges claimed the support of Further Education Funding Council and Department for Education and Employment officials. Both denied offering any comment.

A letter from the Association of Principals of Colleges urged its members to back the board, which includes APC president Hilary Cowell. Several members, including one past president, took a different view.

Backroom diplomacy continued, with Mr Flint writing to Mr Scrimshaw on February 2, laying out the rebels' case for an election. A new mandate was needed to create a board capable of unifying colleges. He wrote: "We want to suggest to you that there is no way that the sector can unite behind the present board. We know there are some very good people on it; we want them to stay. We think that you will be an excellent chairman; we want you to stay. but we want to know that there will be no cabals, no cliques and we believe that those who were with Roger Ward from the beginning, who condoned or failed to notice the tactics, the secrecy, the expense account, the sleaze, should go. We must not slide back into the old rituals."

This week, the board was persuaded to agree.

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