Mix and match

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Ray Dowd was faced with the prospect of axing 170 out of 741 jobs almost from the day he arrived as principal.

Joe West, the acting principal seconded from St Helens Community College, had warned him as he handed over the baton that the atmosphere could not be more hostile - understandably so. Still reeling from a mass redundancy programme 18 months earlier, staff were now utterly demoralised by the Further Education Funding Council inspectors' report that gave rock-bottom grades and left staff feeling they somehow had to share the blame for mismanagement.

There was no escaping the cuts as incompetent information management had led to overstaffing by 190 posts. West privately admits to being "staggered" by the depth of despair.

But if there was a collective sense of blame, there had to be a collective solution, Dowd concluded. And that lay in a skills audit that had to be scrupulously fair and open. All the unions were asked to sign-up, Acas, the independent conciliation service, was engaged, and staff from Blackpool and the Fylde College were asked to monitor progress and hear individual appeals.

Consultants helped to develop the audit and detailed skills sheets were drawn up, measuring individual abilities, expertise and aptitudes against jobs people hope they were going to do, not against those they were doing. No such approach had been taken on previous redundancies.

"There was to be no vendetta, no victimisation," says Dowd. "Throughout, I was in the process of removing senior post-holders and appointing new people. The audit had to go right to the top and there could be no favouritism."

Indeed, only one senior manager was reappointed.

Sue Higginson, head of marketing, says: "The skills audit did help because it did not pigeon-hole people in jobs they were already doing."

The key issue was a skills match, whether in curriculum knowledge, teaching or management. Care was taken not to imply failure but to identify skills to suit students' needs.

Consultants came in to help staff and managers prepare curriculum vitae and to understand why they had to go, if it came to that, and prepare staff for new jobs. Staff went on not knowing whether they were one of the 170 to lose their posts until August 31, all the time recruiting new students.

Dowd would have liked more time for such detailed considerations and believes they should be a natural part of everyday staff support programmes. The testament to the programme's effectiveness is that only one in 170 staff who went expressed a grievance.

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