Principal who jumped ship as financial failure exposed is slammed by FE Commissioner

A total failure of leadership and governance at a cash-strapped London college are laid bare in a new FE commissioner report, published today.

Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College received two visits from Richard Atkins and his team over the summer, prompted by its precarious financial position which has now left it dependent on government bailouts for its survival.

The subsequent report, published today, catalogues a series of failings by the college’s former principal, Garry Phillips, and its governing body and recommends placing the college in administered status – a recommendation accepted by skills minister Anne Milton. 

“Governance urgently requires improvement. The leadership provided by the chair of the board is ineffective,” it said.

“The relationship between clerk, chair and principal / CEO, those holding power, was over supportive and referred to it as being ‘cosy’, with little challenge and feeling a difficulty in asking questions,” the report said.

Furthermore, “it would appear from comments made in meetings that the principal / CEO did not share information and that decision making was held tightly at the top, not cascaded, debated or explained”.

Mr Phillips announced his departure from the college in March. Despite EHWLC’s financial difficulties, he received a 31 per cent pay rise in 2016/17, up to £260,000 – making him the fifth highest paid principal in the country.

“The principal / CEO left in early July to take up a principal’s post at City College Plymouth. His departure was announced, staff noted, at approximately the same time that they found the executive director finance had left.”

The college’s former chair, Tony Alderman, has also now left.

None of the governors interviewed by Mr Atkins’ team “said that they had received an effective induction that equipped them for their role and some noted that their requests for training and support had not been followed up”.

“Governors expressed frustration that this meant they were then not in a position to fully grasp issues, question or challenge,” it said.

They also expressed “concern” that “they had not been kept abreast of issues and some felt they had been misled”.

“The chair said that information given to governors was not always accurate.”

The college’s finance and general purposes committee only met twice in 2017/18, the report said, “the first being attended by only the chair and the principal / CEO, the second by all four members, but the June meeting was cancelled”.

It continued: “There is neither an accountant nor someone with property experience sitting on this committee: it was unlikely that the membership would have been able to provide sufficient support or challenge even if all three meetings had taken place and been attended.”

The report notes that a “lack of holistic and measured strategic thinking and direction in the college leadership and governance” had been noted by the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

Merger discussions, including a planned partnership with Kensington and Chelsea College that was quashed by Mr Atkins earlier this year, are described as “a distraction at best and some without obvious perceived advantages”.

As a consequence of these failing, the college had an “immediate need for external cash flow support” and would be “unable to meet its commitments from early October without support”.

According to the college’s published accounts, it went from a £5.7 million surplus in 2015/16, to an £8 million deficit in 2016/17.

“It is recommended that, given prevailing financial concerns and historic financial performance over a number of years, further consideration be given to conducting an external review to test whether there is a sustainable financial position for the college going forward,” the report said.

Karen Redhead took over as principal at the college at the beginning of September.

“There is an urgent need for the new principal to recruit to and stabilise the leadership team,” the report said.

“The college welcomes the support given by the FE commissioner and is already making rapid progress addressing the recommendations in the report,” a spokesperson for the college said.

 “The intervention, based on emerging short-term financial pressures and recent turnover of managers, will give our leadership team access to some of the best expertise available.”

“We are delighted with the recent appointment of Karen Redhead to the role of chief executive and principal and the expertise that she will bring.”