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Why we agreed Ward severance deal: by AOC board

An open letter from Graham Baskerville, vice- chairman of the board of the Association of Colleges to Ian Nash, editor, TES FE Focus.

As the board member charged with negotiating the departure of Roger Ward from his post as chief executive of the Association, I write in response chiefly to the reporting of this event which appeared in TES FE Focus on January 16. I am saddened that the detailed facts in the press releases sent to The TES were not as fully reported as they have been in the THES and elsewhere, and that we are being questioned by you for delivering what was needed - a swift but fair resolution.

As was clearly stated in our press release, the board, faced with the prospect of a protracted enquiry, decided that this situation could not be permitted to continue. Having made submissions to the enquiry, Roger Ward also expressed his view that any further period of uncertainty made his continuing role untenable. The full text of the severance agreement between ourselves and Mr Ward then followed. The TES did not then ask us further questions, unlike other national papers such as the Guardian, but if you had, you would have been fully answered as they have been. In particular, I would have pointed out that Mr Ward made no admission of guilt. The solicitors, McKeag Co, were finding it very difficult to make headway, for example where commercial confidentiality was claimed by commercial companies. The board acted unanimously in accordance with over-riding legal advice that it should reach a severance deal with Mr Ward. It was self-evident at that point that the enquiry should not continue, since there would be no incentive for outside interests to give further evidence. A pragmatic decision was therefore made, in the interests of all. We had to balance the imperative to be fair and be seen to be fair against potentially huge legal costs and continuing adverse publicity which seemed to be aimed at damaging not just ourselves, but the sector.

The terms of the settlement were modest and, as I have said, they were fully, immediately and voluntarily disclosed by the board to our members and to the national press, as has been our policy throughout, within the constraints of a legal enquiry. Our member feedback to date has generally been most supportive of the actions we have taken.

The reporting of the change of chairman at the AOC was, I believe, seriously misleading, appearing to suggest as it did that the departure of Mr Ward and the chair were connected. They were not, in any way. To quote directly from our press release on this matter: "He (Howard Phelps) had already made clear his intention to resign has position at an appropriate point, due to a health condition which may well require him to undergo surgery in the coming week. He remains a member of the board. The board also expressed their grateful thanks to Howard Phelps for the tireless work he had undertaken on behalf of the sector during the last few months and before that, in following through the formation of the AOC as the voice of further education in England and Wales. "

I turn now to the partial reporting by The TES against the AOC board itself. It is a matter of regret that the limited resources of the association continue to have to be taken to supply answers at very short notice to TES questions about CEF (the College Employers Forum), an organisation which no longer exists, involving actions taken two or three years ago by someone no longer employed by the AOC.

It is especially regrettable in our opinion that certain questions appear to be generated from documents which are no longer in the possession of the association.

In order to avoid unwarranted inferences to be drawn from the current list of questions sent to us, we are on this occasion answering them but give you notice that we may not do so in future. On the specific questions, our new chairman, Jim Scrimshaw, says, "We are not aware of the exact circumstances, but as a general rule it would be inappropriate to pay suppliers' hotel bills." On the matter of numbers of meetings, again, we are not aware of the precise circumstances, but the use of third-party provision was promoted by CEF at this time, and as ELS(staffing agency) was a key provider, a number of meetings would have been appropriate" On the further five questions faxed to our outgoing chairman last week, concerning the board's reactions to Roger Ward's statements to the (House of Commons) select committee and elsewhere about the existence of a register of interests, we made the following response. Roger Ward did write to board members on October 30 about coverage in Private Eye and references were made to "our" register of interests. Readers of that phrase in context could be forgiven for understanding this to be a reference to an AOC senior staff register, and none raised a question on the matter. You are inaccurate to claim that the select committee was not alerted to the absence of a register of interest until it was raised by members of staff. The chairman had already written to the clerk on December 1, putting the select committee on notice that a clarification of Mr Ward's evidence might be required. The board was unhappy about the circumstances which caused Mr Ward to appear a second time before the select committee. It is in the same position as the select committee itself, that is that it accepts that the remaining information given is factual, as Mr Ward has assured.

Our own survey last year indicated widespread member disapproval of the narrow and partial reporting of the sector's business in the trade press. I regret that once again there is a need to put the record straight in this way. Readers will judge for themselves the resource which has had to be used to make this response, and whose interests The TES is actually now serving. Our position remains the same. We are looking forward to the crucial challenges of the New Year. Our 1998 programme of work on behalf of our members will include the White Paper, the regional development agencies and regionalisation, the development of a strong national negotiations framework, a national training organisation for colleges and, of course, funding.

The college sector is key to the Government achieving its priorities. The association is determined to continue to play our part to the fullest to ensure it achieves its potential.

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