A leaked government assessment report reveals how leaders at Hull College Group employed “close family members” and created a culture where staff would not speak out for “fear of being exited at short notice”.
FE Week reported last month that the chief executive, Michelle Swithenbank, and vice principal for HR, Julie Milad, had been suspended and then quit.
But the chair of governors, Dafydd Williams, emailed staff on the last day of term claiming the lawyers from Eversheds, commissioned to undertake an independent investigation, had found “no impropriety” on the part of Swithenbank.
Managers feel uncomfortable about speaking out for fear of being exited
The government has declined to officially comment on the outcome of the investigation.
Despite this, an FE Commissioner ‘intervention assessment report’, seen by this newspaper, is highly critical of employment practices.
The report, dated November 2019, says: “A governance manager was appointed at the end of August 2019 following an external recruitment process. The successful post holder is the daughter of the vice principal human resources [Julie Milad], who is a member of the senior leadership team.
“A number of staff and managers in the college perceive there is a conflict of interest in these two roles being performed by close family members.”
Governors had “insufficient involvement in establishing governance arrangements” and the FE Commissioner concludes: “Clerking arrangements have not been sufficiently independent from the executive and have fallen below acceptable standards.”
The report also found “many staff felt reluctant to voice their concerns to senior leaders because of a lack of trust”.
And after the sudden departure of a senior employee in the summer of 2019 “who lodged grievances against the college and the principal”…“the spirit of openness that had begun was no longer evident and too many managers now comment about a culture that does not tolerate ‘non-compliance’”.
FE Week reported last month how staff felt bullied and were quietly paid to leave after agreeing to sign non-disclosure agreements.
The FE Commissioner, Richard Atkins (pictured above), along with his deputy, Andrew Tyley and two advisors, heard similar stories during their interviews with staff on 30 and 31 October.
“It would appear that the extensive and ongoing use of settlement agreements and confidentiality clauses at the college has eroded the trust and confidence of a number of staff and managers in the employment practices of the college (twenty of these agreements have been implemented between March and August 2019),” the report states.
“Several key staff have left the college and significant concerns have been raised from a cross section of staff and managers who feel uncomfortable about raising concerns or speaking out for fear of being exited from the organisation at short notice.”
FE Week approached the college and government for comment, but they declined the opportunity, other than to say the report is due for publication next month.
Emma Hardy, the local MP and recently appointed shadow secretary for FE by Labour, said: “I am very concerned about the reputational damage to the college along with the way the leadership treated staff in recent months.
“I have asked the chair of the college to share with me the investigation report written by the lawyers at Eversheds.”
The purpose of the FE Commissioner assessment, it says, “is to report on the progress the college has made since it was first placed in formal intervention [in 2016]”.
Since then “the fresh start/recovery plan commenced in March 2018 with a substantial package of restructuring funds totalling £51.7 million” and much of the report is to “assess the capacity and capability of leadership and governance at the college”.
The broader findings from the assessment reveal governors “not exercising effective oversight”, and “minutes have not been published on the college website for over a year”.
Minutes remain unpublished and the college did not respond over several days to requests from FE Week for copies of board minutes.
And despite the record bailout, there remain serious concerns over declining income levels, particularly from the 16 to 18 year-old courses.
The FE Commissioner’s report said that “16 to 18 student recruitment in 2018/19 fell significantly below the allocated number and this has resulted in a £3.436 million (27 per cent) reduction in lagged programme funding in 2019/20”.
They have fallen again this year which, the report adds, “is deeply disappointing given the apparent strong start to enrolments reported at the start of term”.
The assessment document says this is “particularly disappointing when taking into account the college’s substantial expenditure on marketing of over £1 million.”
FE Week reported last October concerns over the use of the marketing budget by Graham Raddings, who at the time was the budget holder.
Raddings quit last year, shortly after marrying then chief executive, Swithenbank.
The report concludes that “overall leadership at the college at this point in time does not demonstrate the necessary capacity and capability to lead the college forward positively” and “good financial health is not yet secure”.
Suspended principal and vice principal quit but college chair claims lawyers found ‘no impropriety’
As first reported by FE Week, the chair of governors, Dafydd Williams, commissioned an “independent” investigation into allegation of nepotism and inappropriate use of funds in September 2019.
Williams, head of communications and corporate affairs at Associated British Ports and former leader of City of York Council, joined the board as chair in January 2019.
At the time the education minister, Lord Agnew, told this newspaper that “any financial wrongdoing, if it has occurred, is treated extremely seriously and we will be carefully monitoring events as the information becomes available”.
The investigation got off to a shakey start, after FE Week revealed the college lawyer was doing the work and Williams subsequently switched law firms.
The leaked government assessment confirmed the “chief executive [Michelle Swithebank] was suspended by the board in October 2019 pending the outcome of an independent investigation undertaken by Eversheds”.
And “following consideration of the interim findings from the Eversheds reports at the November board meeting, the vice principal human resources [Julie Milad] was also suspended”.
On the last day of term, Friday 20 December, the chair emailed all staff to say: “As you know, Eversheds has been conducting a thorough review of our operational arrangements, and I must stress it has found that there has been no impropriety on the part of Michelle. Nevertheless, Michelle has informed us that she wishes to move on.”
Williams added: “Our VP HR and Professional Services Julie Milad has also informed us that she wishes to move on…due to family responsibilities.”