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Thumbs down sends AOC board packing

Leaders of the Association of Colleges bowed to overwhelming pressure from members this week and agreed to resign following the Roger Ward affair.

The strength of feeling among college principals and chairs of governing bodies over the AOC board's handling of the affair was expressed at a general meeting in Birmingham last week. A straw poll of the 300 present showed 70 per cent in favour of the entire board standing down.

Board members were resolute to the last that they would hold on to the reins of power, that they had nothing to blame themselves for over Mr Ward's improper links with suppliers and that the meeting was unrepresentative.

But after the meeting there was a change of heart among the board. A phone-round by AOC chair Jim Scrimshaw - he was able to contact 13 of the 15 members - showed a big majority in favour of resigning. Mr Scrimshaw told The TES this week: "It is for individuals not the board as a whole to resign but I am confident the remaining members will do so.

"While the meeting last week was not a formal meeting, and had no constitutional standing, a clear majority of those attending felt the board should seek a fresh mandate. We were particularly impressed by the breadth of support for this across the whole spectrum of English colleges who attended.

The board's Welsh representative, Huw Evans, principal of Llandrillo College, will stay. He is not elected but nominated by the Welsh employers' group Fforwm. He was given a unanimous vote of confidence by the colleges.

Mr Scrimshaw consulted lawyers this week over steps to replace the board. Current members will remain until a new team is elected. "We can do this in six to eight weeks," said Mr Scrimshaw.

This almost certainly means the appointment of Mr Ward's successor will fall to the new board. There was overwhelming feeling at the Birmingham meeting that the existing board should not be responsible for appointing the new chief executive.

The meeting was a major coup for critics who have been campaigning for almost eight weeks for the board to stand down. But it left numerous issues unresolved, particularly the failed inquiry by solicitors McKeag and Co into Mr Ward's links with companies including a Pounds 650-a-month consultancy agreement with health-care company Burke Ford Reed.

Members accused the board of having a loaded agenda which impaired the impartiality of the inquiry. Margaret Morgan, chair of governors at Southwark College, said Howard Phelps (the previous chair) had told her the terms of reference were intended to "nail the lies of The TES." Several members told The TES immediately after the meeting that they had been given the same information.

Graham Baskerville, AOC vice chair, insisted at the meeting that the terms "were framed in a totally impartial way and McKeag acted properly". But a barrage of criticism continued as members said the terms of reference were never explained to their satisfaction.

The board must remain in place until a new team is elected, Mr Scrimshaw said this week. "The legal advice I have received is that the board members would be in breach of their fiduciary duties as directors if all immediately resigned leaving the AOC without a board of directors."

Until the election, the board committees would continue to function, and officers and staff would proceed as normal under the direction of the acting chief executive Sue Dutton.

FULL story, page 30

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