Struggle to shake off past troubles

29th September 1995 at 01:00
Wilmorton College badly needed a new image. Lucy Ward met the man charged with making the past just a nightmarish memory. On the wall of the principal's office at Derby College, Wilmorton hangs a striking sculpture - a detailed study of a rubbish-strewn gutter. It's an unfortunate image for a college intent on making a fresh start after weathering one of the stormiest scandals to afflict further education in Britain.

The artwork - a legacy of former principal Andrew Stromberg, who retired early on health grounds last year - will come down as soon as the office's new occupier gets a spare moment amid enrolments, meetings and staff interviews. "It does send out all the wrong messages, but it hasn't been top of the priority list," says David Croll, at the helm at Wilmorton since July 1 and still apparently unwearied after a summer of 18-hour days.

Mr Croll, a boyish 42, will need all his energies to tackle what many might regard as one of FE's toughest challenges. Leaving behind the executive director's chair at Barnsley College, he arrived at an institution struggling after flaws and irregularities in its management were very publicly exposed - first through press coverage and then in a highly critical report by Professor Michael Shattock of Warwick University.

Aftershocks were felt throughout the sector as the Shattock inquiry uncovered a catalogue of failures by governors and Mr Stromberg to follow procedures and obey financial controls.

Almost a year from the report's publication, Wilmorton has a new governing body with seven of its members appointed directly by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.

Today the watchword on the leafy campus is openness. Regular open-forum sessions have been introduced to allow staff to raise questions and concerns, and a management reshuffle is being conducted through a series of individual interviews.

Externally, efforts are being made to win over local media, and to rebuild relations with schools, the council and agencies in Derby.

David Croll, whose first speech to a full staff meeting was greeted with a two-minute ovation, is confident he can win support to reverse the college's fortunes. He detects "a groundswell of enthusiasm" among staff newly-released from the frustration of troubled years and now "crying out for recognition".

If lecturers doubt their new principal's faith, they hide it well. They express relief that they can get on with a professional job without distractions and hold heads up at conferences where the Wilmorton name once prompted curious or pitying glances.

As the Shattock report indicated, teaching standards never faltered during the Stromberg era - this summer's results were the best in three years - but extra curricula work nearly ground to a halt. For visual arts programme manager Geoff Wright, busy organising students' work for a regional photographic exhibition after two years without an entry, says staff now have the chance to release creative energy stifled during the troubled period. "All those opportunities and networks are being reactivated, and I think there is generally an optimistic feeling."

The open forums have won approval, and the Croll management style has come as a breath of fresh air. "There are still restructuring issues to be resolved, but in management meetings there is openness," says Markham May, in charge of performing arts and media. "Disagreement is not considered a heinous crime and is actually seen as helpful."

But as glasnost sweeps through Wilmorton's brightly-painted corridors, the damage caused by several years' unrest is not forgotten. Brian Bonsall, the governor, union representative and middle manager who blew the whistle on the mismanagement, does not deny the new sense of enthusiasm, but warns of scars yet to heal.

Staff, he says, are still feeling the stress of national concerns affecting the sector as a whole - the college has still to settle its contracts dispute and the threat of job cuts is in the air. There is even a case, Mr Bonsall argues, for a special one-off payment from the Department for Education and Employment to help Wilmorton get back on its feet. The college's experiences, after all, demonstrated just how badly things could go wrong, prompting more careful control of public money elsewhere.

David Croll, candid over the college's precarious financial position, dismisses calls for special treatment. His new openness extends to harsh realities. A worst-case financial forecast drawn up this term included 40 redundancies from the current 426 full and part-time staff.

Some of the greater extravagances of the former principal have still to be resolved. Oscars, the Pounds 138,000 former nightclub bought with no cost-benefit analysis for conversion to a drop-in learning centre, is up for sale. The Le Dijon training restaurant, where student chefs work in a kitchen worthy of the Roux brothers and diners sit beneath glass chandeliers, has been given a year's grace by governors now keeping a close eye on its budget.

On the plus side, enrolments, which slipped at Wilmorton for three years, are on the up. A promotions caravan bought this summer stopped off in 48 spots around the district, distributing brochures and helping prompt a 20 per cent increase in part-time numbers.

The college must also come to terms with positive elements of the reign of Andrew Stromberg, the man whose "impetuous" nature went uncurbed by his governors, according to Shattock. The hand of the former principal can be seen in a well-equipped resource room for sensory-impaired students. The Dijon restaurant, for all its design excesses, must rival any catering training facility in the country.

Assistant principal Allan Shaw, clerk to the governing body for a year, points out the Dijon's designer light switches and hand-picked Italian tiles. "The procedures were not there but the end result is really something quite exciting," he says.

If Wilmorton staff will take time to shake off the strange legacy of their college's history, today's students seem unconcerned by, if not ignorant of, past events. First years taking a break in the spacious food hall were barely aware of any inquiry, and looked blank at the name of Shattock. "I chose Wilmorton for the excellent music and drama facilities - I don't even know who the principal is," said one performing arts newcomer.

For David Croll, presumably, that is as it should be. His concern now is to return the college to its rightful place in its wider community, no longer the subject of press coverage and pub gossip for all the wrong reasons.

On a display board in the college entrance, an aerial photograph depicts a chunk of the Derby landscape with one area contained within an encircling red line - the site of the city's shortlisted bid to hold the Millennium Exhibition, the year-long "party of the century" attracting millions in investment and limitless prestige.

Until July, the Wilmorton campus lay outside the line, uninvolved in the plans, but Mr Croll swiftly included the site. The college which was once the black sheep of further education is determined to return to the fold.

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