Whistleblowers: Ulster head under fire

March 2, 2001

Training for senior staff has been recommended at Ulster's North East Institute, after an internal investigation into a management breakdown.

A report for governors into management at the Ballymena-based institute found that some senior staff believe that principal Sheila Owen-Jones is "somewhat dictatorial" and can "create a sense of insecurity and fear".

Campus unions claim there has been a "complete breakdown in trust and confidence at the top of the institution", and they want a full, independent inquiry.

The report, by former Library Board education officer Aiden Sherrard, recommends that the governors bring in a facilitator to provide training "to ensure that the principal, the directors and members of the corporate management team can reach formal understandings on such matters as delegation... accountability and consultation".

The report says that "friction between the principal and senior staff would appear to be at the core of the current difficulties".

"The principal is seen by a number of senior staff to be: somewhat dictatorial; consults less than she should; does not always communicate the rationale behind her decisions; undermines the authority of her managers; creates a sense of insecurity and fear; does not readily listen to advice".

It says that although the principal had strengths and faced an onerous task, "some of the criticisms are, in my opinion, valid".

But many of the staff believe the report does not go far enough. A December 2000 staff survey by campus lecturers' unions found that more than 94 per cent of the 168 respondents described staff morale as either poor or very poor. A staff motion was unanimously carried after a meeting this week, which said that the Sherrard report "fails to reflect the depth of the breakdown".

A senior spokesman for the institute said that the principal had accepted the report "and is willing to act on any negatives in it". He said that personality clashes among managers of an institution with more than 500 staff were inevitable, and stressed that the report contained many positive elements.

College settles unfair dismissal claim

North Birmingham College has settled a claim that it unfairly sacked lecturer Ian Walker for complaining about management to the Department for Education and Employment.

The college agreed to settle Mr Walker's claim part-way through a tribunal case being heard under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which protects whistleblowers from victimisation. Mr Walker has received an undisclosed sum, and the college confirmed this week that he has agreed to withdraw his complaints.

The THES reported a year ago that Mr Walker had been made redundant in 1999 after he complained to ministers about senior appointments. Mr Walker was concerned about the rise of Ian Douglas, who was promoted to the unadvertised post of deputy principal, via two other unadvertised posts, within two years of joining the college as a personnel officer. Mr Walker said that Mr Douglas's promotions appeared to breach a requirement to open senior posts to competition, although the DFEE did not concur.

In May 1999, Mr Walker was selected for redundancy. The college was made aware of Mr Walker's correspondence with ministers, despite assurances that his complaints would be handled in confidence, at least five days before his appeal against redundancy was heard by principal Joan Short. Mr Walker was also one of a group of staff who had submitted a formal grievance against Ms Short before his appeal. The college dismissed complaints that it would be a breach of natural justice for Ms Short to hear his appeal and Mr Walker was confirmed redundant.

The college settled the claim, without admission of liability, after three days of evidence.

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