Picking up the pieces now Roger has gone

6th February 1998 at 00:00
TES FE Focus editor Ian Nash gives his personal account of events that led to next week's emergency meeting of the Association of Colleges

On July 2, three significant events occurred in Jim Scrimshaw's life:

"Helena Kennedy published her report, the Labour Government had its first Budget and I reached 50."

It was a day for the Barking College chair of governors to take stock. One of the things on the agenda was who would take over as chairman of the Association of Colleges, as Howard Phelps was soon to step down through ill health. If asked on that eventful day whether he would take over from Mr Phelps, Jim Scrimshaw's answer would have been "a definite no!" But there was a fourth event of which he could know nothing, but which would shape events short-term more than any Government report or budget. It would see him taking the chair in the most controversial period for college employers since incorporation in 1993.

It began when an anxious acquaintance of some AOC staff asked to meet me in a quiet north London pub to "pass on information" about the increasingly alarming activities of the then chief executive Roger Ward.

Documents which should, in their view, have been open to public scrutiny were not. Staff had been requested to perform duties in work time which related less to the AOC (and its predecessor the Colleges Employers Forum) than to Mr Ward's personal advancement.

Allegations dating back more than two years were very serious. He had passed on a mailing list of confidential data on member college managers to a finance firm with whom he had a Pounds 650-a-month consultancy agreement. His dealings with the part-time staff agency Education Lecturing Services were proving unhealthily close as more and more time was diverting him from essential activities.

There were documents and minutes which, if not open to the public eye, should at least have been shown to member colleges. Certain members of the board had been alerted but nothing was seen to be done.

Weeks of painstaking investigative journalism by The TES FE Focus reporters followed as the jigsaw was pieced together under the relentless scrutiny of Times Newspapers lawyers. The last time The TES had instigated such inquiries was over the Derby Wilmorton College scandal - which led to the damning Shattock report and first dismissal of governors by the Secretary of State.

After an inquiry into the AOC affair by solicitors McKeag and Co failed to reach any satisfactory conclusions, Roger Ward was given the board's ultimatum to quit or be sacked. He quit.

The course of events were truly extraordinary. TES reporters acquired their very own Deep Throat, complete with voice disguiser. Indeed, some journalists, predictably enough, dubbed the affair "Rogergate".

Some people he had made enemies of - and others he mistakenly believed were close allies - provided a deluge of information which would contribute to his downfall. At one point he was recalled with humiliation back to the House of Commons after, at best, dissembling to the education and employment select committee over the existence of an AOC register of interests. The craft appeared to be sinking and some, desperate not to go down with it, were jumping ship.

All the rest is not yet history. Whether the board's handling of the affair came up to scratch is for the FE sector to decide next week at a special emergency meeting in Birmingham, following the annual briefing for colleges by the Further Education Funding Council.

And Jim Scrimshaw has the unenviable task of presiding over the AOC event. He wants it to be an occasion in which the board can fairly detail its view on the whole affair. "But it must be about looking forward, not back," he insists. "

The task of dealing with tough personnel and management decisions is his bread and butter. He is currently organisational development director for Telephone Cables Ltd, a subsidiary of the giant GEC. Responsibilities include personnel, information management, quality control, purchasing, risk management and commercial marketing and communications.

His communication skills have undoubtedly served him well . He is almost universally liked. Even arch-opponents of the current board continue to distance him from any blame. Indeed, if the board were to go, they would want him to stay - at least as acting chair for new elections.

This is somewhat surprising since he is also one of the old guard - who moved smoothly from the CEF to AOC board 18 months ago.

But then, he is a man who exudes confidence and commands trust. In the eyes of one leading principal and opponent of the board he is "Mr Nice Guy, Mr Straight". And, of course, "we need a new broom but we also desperately need continuity in the face of such a fiasco".

Jim Scrimshaw personifies "if you want something done give it to a busy person". As chair of Barking College since incorporation, he presided over a period of remarkable expansion, praised by ministers.

He is chair of the local Education Business Partnership, chair of the London East Training and Enterprise Council and a seconded member of the local education authority education committee. He was elected to the CEF board in July 1995 and the AOC in July 1996, becoming chair of the finance committee in October 1996.

Jim Scrimshaw has a very clear agenda: to give FE a leading role in reshaping post-16 education and training. This vision, Labour's pledges and "the buzz I came away with when Helena Kennedy reported" all contributed to his change of mind over whether to take the AOC chair.

Since he was not chair during the McKeag inquiry, he may have an smoother ride when opponents attempt to derail the AOC board next week. He is determined to stick to the agenda of "the way forward" (see story below) But he has no doubt that there will be rough fighting.

While most member colleges will back him in wanting to drive the debate forward, they will also want answers on the board's conduct.

If claims made against Roger Ward had happened in most private sector companies, the board would have had no hesitation in suspending him from office pending the outcome of the inquiry.

Instead, he was left in post for five weeks. On one hand it was a testament to his undoubted ability as chief executive. On the other, however, it was an inept decision at such a crucial moment. Left free to roam the Centre Point HQ in London, he undermined the independence of the inquiry and unwittingly generated ill-feelings against the board.

One alarming incident went unanswered by Howard Phelps and remains to be answered by Jim Scrimshaw. I sent a confidential fax of questions to the former chair regarding the McKeag inquiry. Colin McKeag responded - ostensibly to The TES alone.

Within hours, Roger Ward phoned me querying details in the McKeag fax. Moreover, he read it out over the phone. I challenged him. "How come McKeag is sending these details to you?" I inquired.

Ward, caught off guard, replied: "Err...It may not have been McKeag's; it could have been the chair."

Could it? Who allowed him access to such sensitive material? We approached the board with these and other questions but have never had a satisfactory reply.

Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College and one of the 150 college heads who may move a vote of no confidence in the board next week, said: "We certainly all hope that Jim Scrimshaw can give clear answers to such questions in Birmingham next week."

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