Behind closed doors, rebels turn the tide

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Ngaio Crequer reveals how the colleges brought down their leaders

They trooped in to the music of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. The king - Roger Ward, of course - had long since been toppled. But were more to follow?

At 4.30pm sharp 300 principals and chairs of governors gathered in the auditorium at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham to hear the official Association of Colleges' version of the disgraced chief executive Mr Ward's departure. For some it was their first opportunity to tell the board to go the way of Ward.

Jim Scrimshaw, the AOC chair, set the ball rolling. Recent events were "unfortunate" and with hindsight the board could have done better. But it had acted as well as could reasonably be expected, he insisted. New procedures were now in place. The board had decided, with a few exceptions, it would not endorse or recommend third-party suppliers to the sector.

The recruitment of a new chief executive was now "the single most important thing the board is called upon to do". Nolan guidelines on standards in public life would be strictly observed. There would be a job description, open advertisement and, he hoped, the selection by June.

"There is a seductive argument that by standing down and then re-standing we will have a new mandate. In reality it would harm our long-term stability if we were to set a precedent that we would be required to stand down. We do believe that we have majority support."

And then came their special offer. Because of normal retirement by rotation, at least six board members would retire anyway. But if critics persisted, they would have to call an emergency general meeting. This would detract from the association's work and its voice would not be listened to.

Next to the rostrum came AOC deputy chair Graham Baskerville, with the case for the defence. "The board admits that there was no register of interests. We were embarrassed by the (House of Commons education) select committee, there is no excuse for that and we are sorry that we did not establish a register of interests. We must apologise to our members. At the time it did not seem terribly important from the back burner.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing. One's memory plays tricks, it is not easy to remember. The allegations against Roger Ward (in November) were specially timed for the start of the Harrogate conference. We acted speedily to set up the McKeag inquiry, to examine the allegations in The TES. There was no evidence then to justify suspension, no admission by Roger Ward. . ."

The inquiry had been going slowly, said Mr Baskerville, the original correspondence was difficult to get, and everyone was talking through lawyers. "The board felt the pressure on Roger was so great he could not defend himself."

The letter confirming the consultancy agreement was being widely circulated, Ward had appeared at the Commons education and employment select committee, and staff had said he had been misleading. So "he was suspended, our lawyers made that quite clear to him. It was a suspension in law." (The word suspension was adamantly denied by the AOC at the time.) A verbal interim report from McKeag's inquiry showed they had received no direct evidence from finance company Burke Ford Reed over the Pounds 650-a-month consultancy agreement - but Ward had not denied the letter. Costs were mounting. They were concerned that Ward might go for constructive dismissal and a lot of money was at stake. "We were very cautious . . . we could not tell members everything that was happening, " Mr Baskerville continued.

Legal advice to the board was to go for instant dismissal, a special committee, or a severance agreement. They went for the latter. "It was a very modest settlement indeed in my opinion," said Mr Baskerville. But the inquiry had to be discontinued.

At 4.43pm, it was the members' turn. Speeches were generally short, some powerful and emotional. And now the strategy became evident.

Vince Hall, principal of Dewsbury College, said he had no confidence in the board to appoint a chief executive. They should take a straw poll - the board needed the confidence of the sector.

Mr Baskerville responded; did a college board resign if its principal had been suspended. But his counter-attack only provoked anger.

Margaret Morgan, chair of Southwark College, said: "This is a question of the fitness of the board to continue. At the November conference I asked that the question of the register of interests be discussed. We still have not heard detailed terms of reference." She said that Howard Phelps (the previous chairman) had told her the terms of reference for the independent inquiry were intended to "nail the lies of The TES".

"I have to ask whether that was the view of the board, or whether it was prejudging the inquiry. I would still like to know the terms of reference. In these circumstances I want re-selection of the board - and I signed your nomination papers," she demanded, to applause from the audience.

Mr Baskerville insisted the terms "were framed in a totally impartial way and McKeag acted properly".

Annette Zera, principal of Tower Hamlets, shared the view that an extraordinary general meeting would be divisive. "The honourable thing is to draw a line on the past and for you (the board) to step down."

Douglas Keith, principal of Sandwell, wanted a new regionally-based constitution. There should be no appointment of a chief executive until that was done. What did the Government think about what had happened? What did the staff think? "This meeting urges you to test your notion of majority support, either by a poll or questionnaire."

The first change of direction came from Jim Horrocks, chair of Barnfield College, Luton. He still had an open mind as to whether the board should stand down. He warned against sanctimony. If there were a truly democratic election, and not just organisations running tickets, the result could be different.

David Lyon principal of Chesterfield, said it would be too tempting to purge or go on a witchhunt. He took on board the resignation by rotation solution. If the board went en masse, people might say they did not know what they were doing in the first place.

Blackpool and Fylde College supported the board. Many AOC members had confronted problems on which they had not too little evidence to act. The board handled the Ward affair correctly. An election would see old factions re-emerging. "Have the show of hands - but we have to take the view that the board is acting in the best interests of the sector . . ."

Ken Cure, chair at East Birmingham, said: "If it is not broke you don't mend it, but if there are things wrong you can change them. There is no point in throwing out the whole board."

There followed threats to withhold subs and pleas for somebody to unite them. Then Colin Flint, principal of Solihull, said the board must stand down to end the turbulence and unite the sector. "We have not got a single voice in the sector. We have not got it and we never had it." He would support Mr Scrimshaw as chairman, and some others, but several people appointed Ward twice. "We want a new approach to industrial relations and people representing us to Government from the position of authority and trust."

And so at 5.26pm they voted, 70-30 in favour of the board standing down. Some were visibly stunned. Afterwards, at a press conference Mr Scrimshaw agreed the vote had been "impressive." His next job was to ring absentee board members to canvass their views on resignation.

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