A high-profile troubleshooter sent in by ministers to save failing colleges has resigned after becoming embroiled in a race row – but declared he is “not a racist”.
Andrew Baird, one of the government’s national leaders of governance who chairs two colleges, shared a meme in a Conservative WhatsApp group for the Surrey area about Rishi Sunak after his appointment as prime minister.
The image showed Larry the Downing Street cat walking away from Number 10 with a speech bubble saying “I’m off. Don’t want to risk being in a curry”, Baird told FE Week. Sunak is the first Asian prime minister of the UK.
Baird said he thought the meme was “extremely funny at the time”, but several members in the chat took offence to the message and reported him to the Conservative HQ. He was then suspended by the party.
Baird resigned as chair of the East Surrey Conservative Association on Friday and told FE Week today that he has also resigned as a national leader of governance and as chair of both Brooklands College and Orbital South Colleges.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said his organisation was “appalled” by Baird’s remarks. He added that the colleges were “right to distance themselves from this individual” as “discrimination has no place anywhere in the further education sector”.
I am not a racist. I guess it’s to do with age or something
But Baird believes the “extreme” reaction to his message has been “ridiculous” and the situation was “blown up out of proportion” by the “wokerati”.
“I think it’s actually quite outrageous that a jokey post on a private Whatsapp group gets put in the public domain and then it leads to all this,” he said. “It is just nonsense.”
Baird told FE Week that the group had 71 members.
He added: “I think I regret not thinking twice before posting something which I consider to be humorous. I didn’t consider it racist in any way. I am not a racist. I guess it’s to do with age or something.”
Baird said resigning from his college governance positions was the “right thing to do” so he does not bring their reputations into disrepute.
But he warned that the situation has led to the “detriment of colleges if I’m being perfectly honest”.
Baird was awarded an MBE for his services to further education in the Queen’s Birthday Honours earlier this year.
He became a governor of East Surrey College in 2008 before becoming chair in 2016. He led the college through a merger with John Ruskin College in 2019, at which point it became known as Orbital South Colleges.
In the same year he was appointed as one of the Department for Education’s national leaders of governance – a group of consultants led by the FE Commissioner who take home £350 a day if they are sent into struggling colleges to help turn them around.
He was parachuted into Hadlow College in 2019 after financial irregularities were exposed and ultimately led to it becoming the first college to ever go insolvent.
Later that year Baird was sent into chair Brooklands College after it was rocked by a £20 million apprenticeship scandal.
Orbital South Colleges and Brooklands College confirmed they have accepted Baird’s resignation.
A spokesperson for the Conservative Party said the meme was posted to a “private WhatsApp group, not an official Conservative Party WhatsApp Group”, adding that the matter is “currently under review”.
The DfE declined to comment.