Barred of Avon

January 22, 1999

Were Dermot Sheils and John Holland sacked by Stratford-upon-Avon College because they are disabled? Staff at the college and both men's trade unions fear so.

Mr Sheils's and Mr Holland's employment contracts were formally terminated last weekend - although both have been banned from the college premises since they were made compulsorily redundant in July 1998.

Despite Mr Holland's being registered blind and Mr Sheils's being defined as disabled after a series of serious operations last year, both had helped earn their college two of the highest quality inspection grades in an inspection report published just two months before they were asked to leave the premises.

Mr Holland, as head of arts, humanities and sciences, earned the college a top grade one - "outstanding" - for media and drama courses. Mr Sheils's catering courses were given a grade two - "good".

In contrast to these glowing endorsements, the inspectors from the Further Education Funding Council found that the college's governance was wanting.

The governors, the FEFC found, had failed to comply with "some statutory requirements". Their monitoring of financial performance was "inadequate"

and they were "insufficiently involved" in monitoring the strategic plan.

This might help explain why the college "showed a shortfall against budget". The college's financial accounts for the year to July 1998 show an income of Pounds 5.7 million, against an expenditure of Pounds 6.4 million, compared with a surplus in 1997.

The FEFC noted that managers at the time were "developing strategies to improve the college's financial health". These strategies, it seems, included rationalising senior posts by reducing the management team from four vice-principals to two.

Mr Holland's and Mr Sheils's trade unions insist that their work still exists and that neither was subject to an evaluation of his work or allowed to reapply for the new, rationalised posts.

Both men argue that they were unfairly dismissed. Mr Sheils has the full backing of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, which has described the dismissals as "despicable". Mr Holland has the backing of the Association of College Managers.

A tribunal is due to take place in April. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has supplied Mr Holland with a barrister and views it as a test case.

Neither Vince Seaman, chairman of governors, nor Nigel Briggs, the principal, could comment. Both said they were constrained by the pending industrial tribunal. Mr Holland and Mr Sheils could not comment for the same reasons.

Another point in the FEFC inspection report noted: "There are some dimensions of equality of opportunity which are not effectively promoted and managed" at Stratford-upon-Avon College.

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