Officials have given an unprecedented ultimatum to a governing body. Ngaio Crequer reports.
THE entire board of governors of Wirral Metropolitan College faces dismissal by the Secretary of State for Education unless its members resign immediately.
In an unprecedented move, the Further Education Funding Council has authorised its chief executive to ask the minister to remove the governors, under section 57 of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
A spokesman said: "The council has made this decision on the basis that the affairs of Wirral Metropolitan College have been and are being mismanaged. In taking this decision, the council spent considerable time looking at various options.
"The council's action is aimed at safeguarding public funds and meeting its legal duty to provide adequate and sufficient further education provision for the Wirral."
But to give the college governors a last chance, the council will stay the recommendation if they go voluntarily.
The council said: "In the light of an offer by the college governors to 'resign upon request', the chief executive has been authorised by the council to delay the forwarding of this recommendation to the Secretary of State until after the college governing body has met and considered the council's decision.
"This will allow all members of the corporation to agree to resign and enable an appropriate transfer to a new governing body."
The college has had acute governance and management problems, and has run up a debt ofpound;9 million, which it has been slowly reducing. Jenny Shackleton, the principal, has already announced her decision to take early retirement in the summer.
The council demanded that the college draw up a rescue plan, but this was thought inadequate to solve the outstanding problems. In an attempt to beat off calls for their dismissal, the governors stepped down from the committees they were chairing, but insisted they would stay on the board. Only when it became obvious that this was not sufficient to satisfy the council did they make the offer to resign.
Section 57 of the Act, which has never before been invoked, covers intervention by the minister in the event of mismanagement or breach of duty. It states: "If the Secretary of State is satisfied that the affairs of any institution within the further education sector have been or are being mismanaged, he may on the recommendation of the appropriate council by order . . . remove all or any of the members of the governing body of the institution and appoint new members in their places."
The Wirral Metropolitan board was due to meet yesterday to discuss the council's decision. It will also be making the decision on whether to sell a prime site, Carlett Park. There has been vehement local opposition to the plan.
Ms Shackleton said: "We only had the letter from the council half an hour ago so it is too early to speculate. But I know that the board will act in the best interests of the college.
"The governors have been consulting with the council since September about the membership of the board, in order that we could give them the assurances they were seeking.
"I know that they will want continuity and stability. I think they would want me to say that the board continues to reject the view that they have mismanaged the affairs of the college."
* In 1995, all but two of the governors of Derby Wilmorton College were sacked after an investigation revealed serious failings.