Principal defends threatened governors

January 15, 1999

The threatened mass sacking of governors at Wirral Metropolitan College is not part of a "rational" recovery process, beleaguered principal Jenny Shackleton said this week.

Her board was due to submit an emergency financial recovery plan to the Further Education Funding Council this week. Ms Shackleton suggested that Wirral was a victim of the government's get-tough stand against failing colleges.

Sources close to the recovery negotiations have said that the funding council is likely to recommend that the secretary of state invoke rarely-used powers to dismiss the college's entire board, under section 57 of the Further and Higher Education Act. In a carefully worded comment, Ms Shackleton suggested that this was irrational.

She said: "If we are facing a rational process then I'm confident that we will not face section 57. The college may have to say again to the FEFC that we've already offered to move in the direction it is proposing. It is unclear what section 57 would give to the FEFC that they don't already have."

She said that the college recovery plan - due to be submitted today - has invited the FEFC to propose adjustments to the college governance.

She said: "It is worth remembering that the board is made up of senior local citizens with a long history of voluntary, unpaid public service.

They are not in here for glory or remuneration or power."

She said that the college was a victim of local and national politics. "I would hate to think that we had been scapegoated. There is no mileage for the college in thinking that way. But there is a highly political local environment. Now there is a stronger interest in the performance of colleges, we have to take that into account."

Ms Shackleton said that the most controversial element of the recovery plan - the sale of the Carlett Park campus in the face of strong local opposition - was inevitable. "Carlett Park will find itself closing under one administration or another. It is too large a resource for the educational role it could occupy."

She denied that the closure - currently blocked by the FEFC for external review - would create barriers to access in the region. "The closure will be more advantageous to at least 65 per cent of the student population at Carlett Park, and we are extending our network of neighbourhood colleges."

She said the college was already recovering from the historic financial crisis. "We've been working on recovery since 1996 when the college had to cope with a Pounds 4 million reduction in its European Social Fund grant," she said.

In 1993-94 the college had a Pounds 35 million income, which has slumped steadily to Pounds 22.5 million in 1997-98. The college faces a deficit of Pounds 9.7 million.

"But we have been trading in surplus for 18 months now," Ms Shackleton said. "Our retention rate is average for the whole sector and above average for deprived areas. Our achievement rate is below average, but it is mid-range for colleges of our type."

Ms Shackleton announced before Christmas that she was sacrificing herself for the good of the college by taking early retirement this year. She has been at Wirral college for 11 years. "We need to rearrange the college in terms of its relationship with the FEFC," she said.

"There are no remaining rational arguments against the sale of Carlett Park. A change of face - or faces - might be the price that needs to be paid to finalise the college's accommodation strategy."

The FEFC said that the recovery plan would be discussed at its board meeting on January .

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