Ousted chair breaks silence on Stoke crisis

9th May 1997 at 01:00
The man who was ousted as chairman of governors at the height of the Stoke-on- Trent College financial difficulties spoke this week for the first time about his role in the fiasco.

George Mardle was dropped from the governing board of Stoke last summer, as the college's Pounds 8 million budget crisis came to light. But this week he broke his silence, in an interview with The TES, to claim he was being made a scapegoat by the new administration.

Mr Mardle said the college governors, under the chairmanship of Kevin Farrell, had not published the full report of auditors Coopers Lybrand, commissioned after the college's financial problems became apparent.

The corporation instead published its own statement, said to be based on the Coopers Lybrand study. The report singled out sacked principal Neil Preston for much of the blame for the collapse, but laid responsibility for many problems of governance at Mr Mardle's door.

He said: "While I understand the need for the corporation to seek some scapegoats . . . I am concerned that elements of the story are not being explored in detail and particular interpretations are being placed on the information that is being presented. This could be cleared up, of course, if the college were prepared to publish the CL report in full and allow any accusations or inferences of blame to be fully scrutinised.

"One can only speculate on what information is being withheld and for what reason?

"It is indicated that I held weekly meetings with Mr Preston to agree the 'agenda' for corporation meetings, the inference being that such agendas were somehow 'fixed'.

"In reality the weekly meetings were, as at many colleges across the country, designed to keep me briefed on college issues. Agendas came about because of the level of business that was being generated in the college. At no time, except in one instance, did any single governor request that a particular item should be on the agenda. Indeed the biggest complaint was that we had too many items and too much detail in the reports.

"Of particular concern was the general failure of governors to read the information available or attempt to understand the changes that were happening in the college. Importantly, time after time training events, on funding for instance, were under-utilised or even cancelled through lack of interest. "

A plan to develop Stoke as a network of community colleges has also been cited as a contributing factor to its difficulties. Mr Mardle said: "As a body we had collectively decided on the community colleges strategy yet at no stage when we went through the strategic planning process did any single governor raise their concerns of such a 'high-risk strategy'. In retrospect they now seem to be saying something different.

Mr Mardle spoke for the first time about the splits which tore the Stoke governing body apart as the crisis unfolded, claiming a group of governors set themselves up as "a corporation within a corporation".

He said: "In an attempt to clear the air a formal meeting was held between the small group, Mr Preston and myself with a professional representative also present. The meeting finished with apparent agreement that the issues had been sufficiently dealt with. Almost immediately the process was undermined by more accusations from the same group.

"There were also clear demands from that group that Mrs Chandler (assistant director and head of marketing Helen Chandler, who was sacked alongside Mr Preston earlier this year) had to go without specifying on what legal basis I should act to dismiss her. On advice from the college solicitor I had no alternative than to reject their demands."

He added: "There are serious issues which I think arise from the limited information we have before us. It is clear that serious questions of accountability and responsibility are raised.

"If we are to open up governing bodies to more scrutiny of their actions and more community accountability then surely we must question the right of certain governors to have power without public accountability."

Mr Mardle resigned last September after fellow governors decided not to co-opt him on to the board for a further two-year term. "I was ousted by a small group (of governors) who decided that they did not want me to continue as chair. It cannot be right that certain governors have the power to 'choose' who should join or leave them.

"It cannot be right that any governor is there not as a representative of the business, organisation or community from which he or she comes, but simply by dint of transfer from the previous system.

"It cannot be right that any public organisation where things appear to go wrong has no need publicly to account for its actions."

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