Computer game and ’80 piece’ orchestra spend investigated at Hull College

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The husband of the chief executive at a college surviving on bailout funding used the marketing budget to hire the 80-piece Hull Philharmonic Orchestra to play computer-game music, FE Week can reveal.

As previously reported, Hull College Group has launched an independent investigation into allegations of nepotism and misuse of funding and its boss, Michelle Swithenbank, has since gone on leave.

The investigation is understood to also include over £100,000 spent on a computer game app, computer game-style cinema advertising and a PR agency that promoted the music event and computer game.

The spending has been described as “concerning” by the college’s local MP, Emma Hardy, who is also a member of the education select committee.

Tweet from an attendee of the concert, funded by the college, on 15 June 2019

The college funds now under scrutiny were spent or committed to by Graham Raddings when in charge of the college marketing budget between January and August 2018.

Raddings, partner and now husband to Swithenbank, claims on his LinkedIn profile to be a “games designer” and an “8 bit [computer game music] enthusiast with entrepreneurial spirit”.

He was appointed to the college as executive director of marketing and innovation in January 2018, around the time the college had received a £42 million bailout from the government as part of a Fresh Start process.

Before Raddings left the college in August 2018, the college partnered with 8-Bit Symphony to run their first ever music event on June 15, 2019.

The college spent more than £10,000 to hire the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra and Hull City Hall, according to the contract, with Hull Culture and Leisure Ltd acting as an agent for Hull City Council.

Described as “8-bits, 80 piece orchestra, 90+ minutes” the musicians played retro computer game music by composer Dr Rob Hubbard.

8-Bit Symphony was founded by Chris Abbott, who runs a business called C64Audio. According to Abbott’s website the two other founders were Damian Manning and Graham Raddings.

Supporting the claim that Raddings was Abbott’s business partner, FE Week has also obtained emails from Raddings sent to college staff many months after he had left, leading the event arrangements on behalf of 8-Bit Symphony.

Despite this, Abbott told FE Week that he “approached the college to see if they wanted to support the very first event” and that Raddings was only “a point of contact at the college” and “Graham’s name is an error on the website, and this is currently being corrected”.

A spokesperson for Hull College Group said: “The board were made aware of the event happening in June 2017, and considered there was no conflict of interest.

“As with any business the event had clear objectives and budget allocation. Michelle Swithenbank’s involvement with the event was to support and promote where appropriate.”

An email from Raddings’ personal Hotmail account to a college employee on February 20, 2019 concerning the “8 bit VIP event”, with Abbott copied in, asks “what do you need from us to ensure we can get things sorted?”.

Email from Graham Raddings organising the event several months after leaving the college

The following day, Swithenbank responds to the “8 bit VIP event” email by sending it to the vice principal, marketing staff, the PR agency Pace Communications and copying in Raddings, to say: “Hi all. We don’t need the theatre we need the restaurant and the main building. This has been going on since August, how are we not up to speed with things? This is a Very important event on 15th June which is a Saturday. I thought it had all been coordinated and sorted?”

Abbott said C64Audio “paid for the food and drink and also paid for all of our VIP tickets”…“received no payments from the college” and is still in the process of registering 8-Bit Symphony as a charity.

According to tweets from college staff at the time, the VIP event held on the college premises included 38 bottles of champagne, 46 bottles of wine and more than 1,000 canapés.

Of the VIP event, a spokesperson for Hull College Group said: “The event was not for guests of the principal’s husband. Prosecco and canapés were served as agreed in the hospitality brief to the client, C64Audio.”

They added that the students “gained valuable voluntary work experience which has enhanced their skills for their study programme”.

In the meantime, Abbott has used the publicity from the 8-Bit Symphony event to raise close to £70,000 for a Kickstarter campaign to produce a CD and told FE Week he plans to run similar events “with other organisations across the globe”.

During his time at the college, Raddings also used the marketing budget to pay for the development of a free computer game called Go Go Dash, which remains available on the iTunes store.

The college has refused to reveal how much was spent, but FE Week understands it was in excess of £30,000. The developer chosen was a former colleague of Raddings, Adam Carmichael, a lecturer at Grimsby Institute and the sole director of Microwave Games Ltd.

The college confirmed it also paid Rob Hubbard, the composer behind the 8-Bit Symphony, to compose the music for the game.

Graham Raddings

According to the press release written by the PR agency Pace Communications: “Hull College principal and CEO, Michelle Swithenbank, said: ‘The game is a lot of fun and is an innovative way to showcase the opportunities we offer for learners who are interested in working in the city’s growing digital sector. By involving Rob Hubbard, we also hope to inspire our learners to also go on and achieve great things’.”

In addition to the cost of creating the free game and use of the PR firm, the marketing budget was also used to create a “gaming zone” at the college to launch the app, as well as advertising the game around Hull on a digital screen on the side of a van.

College minutes for May 2019 describe another app in which “the finance director confirmed that the app is being developed and progress would be reported at the next meeting”.

When FE Week first asked the college about this app a spokesperson said: “The smartphone app is a new proposal and still under consideration and planning. It is not linked to Go-Go-Dash”.

The college has refused to provide any details about this app, understood to have a £50,000 budget, and has since said: “After initial consideration of an app, the college decided not to pursue the idea.”

Another new area of spending that is being looked into as part of the investigation is animated video adverts based on computer game graphics that were screened at cinemas.

Before leaving the college, Raddings employed a sole trader, Dave Shepherd, trading as 3D Facility, to undertake what he describes on his website as the “concept development, design and production”.

Shepherd confirmed to FE Week that he is a sole trader working from his home in Hull and with other freelance game designers, but did not respond to further requests for comment.

Raddings was also behind a tender for a PR Agency, understood to have initially been for £90,000 to support the college with internal communications and reputation management as part of the Fresh Start.

The tender process was won by Pace Communications, and the company founder and owner, Anita Pace, has confirmed the contract included her attendance at staff and board meetings at a rate of £85 per hour.

It is understood that before the contract was terminated in early 2019, the budget had been significantly overspent.

In August 2018, Steven Yardley, at the time the college’s vice principal corporate and commercial, spent the afternoon on a 43-foot luxury yacht as a client of Pace Communications.

Steven Yardley (second to the left), at the time the college’s vice principal corporate and commercial

When asked if Pace knew Raddings from the time when they both worked for KCOM, a spokesperson for Pace Communications said: “We would not comment on our work with any of our clients, past or present.”

Raddings did not respond to the question of whether he knew Pace prior to the tender process.

When asked about the details of the spending, Raddings told FE Week: “I categorically and strongly deny any and all allegations of implied or actual financial wrongdoing, budgetary impropriety and any and all inference, direct or otherwise, that my involvement with any of the projects, contractors and suppliers that fell under the remit of my role as executive director of marketing and innovation or my time working at Hull College Group were in any way improper, or have brought the financial position or public perception of Hull College Group into any kind of disrepute.”

The college’s local MP, Emma Hardy, said: “I am pleased that the investigation is looking into this. I am concerned by the evidence that has been presented so far, especially as we know FE colleges are in a dire financial situation and every penny should be used to improve the education for learners.

“It is important to recognise the difficult journey the college has been on and there have been huge improvements. So I welcome this investigation and look forward to a speedy resolution so the college can continue to move forward.”

Michelle Swithenbank told FE Week: “I welcome the investigation and look forward to the outcome.”

 

College switches law firm conducting the ‘independent’ investigation

FE Week reported the Stone King lawyer appointed to the ‘independent’ investigation had for many years been the college’s lawyer, which raised questions over potential conflict of interest.

Since then, the college has moved the work to the law firm Eversheds. A spokesperson for Hull College Group said: “It is in the interests of all parties for the investigation into these whistleblowing allegations to be carried out swiftly and thoroughly.

“As soon as the allegations came to light, Hull College instructed its lawyers Stone King – who are highly regarded in the sector and by the ESFA – to investigate the matter using its HR investigatory team.

“As things stand, however, the whistleblower has declined to participate in the investigation.  Since their participation is clearly integral to the whole process, the corporation has decided to instruct a separate law firm, Eversheds, to conduct the investigation in the hope the whistleblower will now choose to engage with the process.

“The corporation will then be in a position to fully consider and address any issues which may arise from it.”



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41 Comments

  1. Shocking and desperate, if lines like:

    The students “gained valuable voluntary work experience which has enhanced their skills for their study programme”…

    are coming out justifying why a College in financial difficulty was hosting an ego-stroking event for the Principle’s husband serving “38 bottles of champagne, 46 bottles of wine and more than 1,000 canapés”…

      • If they were, they might have read the article properly and realised that the article says Hull College didn’t pay for the VIP event, despite the impression given by the salacious details. As a private event it would have been income.

        • Facts Please

          Quite right. The horrible behaviour of some of the people commenting on here must be founded in one of two things. Lack of understanding, lack of business nous, etc. Or plain maliciousness. I really hope it’s the former, as then the sector has a future. If it’s the latter, then the number of people willing to put themselves in the firing line, to turn colleges around, will dwindle to nothing. When the sector then goes to the wall, I hope that those who have undermined those seeking to save it will rue their unpleasantness.

  2. Disappointed of Hull

    Swithenbank was appointed under the Warke regime. The FE Commissioner made sure he went as part of the bale out. She perhaps should have gone as well. Governors initially said they would appoint future CEOs on a 2 year fixed-term basis so they wouldn’t be stuck with these people hanging on. Why did this change? Both of these people appear to have acted like this once great college (formerly an outstanding college with Beacon Status) is their personal fiefdom to do with as their please. Governors have been fooled but not the staff – hence so many whistle-blowers contacting FE week. Millions wasted over the past few years and hundreds of dedicated and experienced staff gone. Staff used to joke she was bring Grimsby Institute to take over Hull; one staff member at a time.

    Emma is my local MP. She is great but not sure where her evidence is where the college is getting better – Ofsted last graded it as Requiring Improvement! Might be worth Nick asking how many former staff had to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to get their redundancy payments – and how much this cost. Never mind a college-led independent enquiry – I think it’s time the police thought about investigating.

    • Facts Please

      Non-disclosure clauses are perfectly standard elements of severance agreements, and operate in both directions. To suggest that use of such standard clauses warrants criminal investigation is ludicrous, and demonstrates a sad lack of understanding of business. I am sick of people throwing mud in the hope that some will stick. Before doing so again, please think how you’d feel on the receiving end, unable to defend yourself.

      • Disappointed of Hull

        Yes, let’s stick to the facts. Green and Weinstein used a lot of NDAs, so not always used for the most ethical of reasons. The Government is also looking into curbing the use of them. Why are they needed in FE? What sector sensitive info could anyone possibly take elsewhere that isn’t already known. It isn’t like working at Dyson is it?

      • real facts please

        I’m pretty sure that the high amount of whistle-blowers stated know EXACTLY how it feels not being able to defend themselves judging by the alleged amount of NDA’s issued.

    • Facts Please

      An investigation is underway. Until such time as its findings are available, we might all do well to stop making unsubstantiated assertions. Would you like to be on the receiving end of such? I suspect not. So perhaps act accordingly? Or are certain people somehow considered fair game? Disgusting behaviour.

      • Disappointed of Hull

        Hundreds of staff have lost their jobs at this college. If any money that could have kept them in employment, and supporting students, has not been used correctly then this needs to come out. And yes, I agree, let’s see what comes of the investigation. Another fact for you, the first ‘independent investigator’ (that had links to the college) was changed after the intervention (again) of the FE Commissioner. Without FE week pushing this I don’t think we would have got to the point where a proper independent investigation is going to take place. Well done to them.

  3. #$@&%*! – is as polite as this can be!!
    There’s clearly little, if any, accountability & financial management if they believe this to be acceptable, particularly when they’re reliant on Government financial support to keep the doors open!

  4. Polite Request

    I am deeply concerned about what is going on here. Instead of reporting on the fact that an investigation is taking place, FE Week appears to be prejudicing that investigation. Clearly, all employees, including (and perhaps especially) those at the most senior levels, need to be held to account. But by their governing bodies, not by sensationalist journalists – unless governors bottle addressing real issues. Of course, it’s true that governing bodies don’t have a great track record in holding senior managers to account, and as well-meaning amateurs can be manipulated by wrong-doers. Yet we now seem to face a situation whereby governing bodies are all too ready to bow to unsubstantiated rumour and insinuation, and to hang out to dry perfectly good people who have done nothing wrong. Their very weakness leads them to bend whichever way the wind’s blowing. If FE Week feels that it must make, instead of just report, the news, can we perhaps have the full picture? Who is leaking college documents to the press? Why are they doing so? What’s the context in which they are doing so? What’s needed here is some humanity. Please, all, don’t rush to judgement. And FE Week, please, recognise that what you publish bears not just on a given situation, but potentially on someone’s whole career. There are plenty of people stupid enough to believe pretty much anything, and it behooves everyone to be cautious and judicious, and to let proper processes run their course. We’ve seen people hounded out before for no good reason – and one can’t help but wonder how much a part sexism plays in that – and we need to be careful not to wrongly trash perfectly good reputations. Being a principal was long a cushy number, and that truth has, inevitably, and properly, led to a corrective. Let’s not go too far the other way, or else no-one with any sense will take up these roles. The sector is in difficulty, some imposed, much of its own making, and needs good, sophisticated, astute, leaders. Let’s not end up without any such. Thank you.

  5. K Brammer

    Surely someone is holding the Governors to account here? Clear bias at the start by appointing their own law firm – wow. Then the college is left pondering why the whistleblower doesn’t wish to testify? I am lost for words!

    • Facts Please

      The ‘whistleblower’ may possibly have decided that they can do maximum damage by throwing their mud and then disappearing into obscurity, without being themselves held to account? Would be fascinating to know who they are. One possibility is that they’re disgruntled somehow? As I’ve already commented, an investigation is underway, and the motivation of this person will hopefully form part of that investigation. The only decent and fair way to proceed is to let that investigation reach its conclusions, whatever they are.

        • This is a bit of a logic failure. Colleges don’t “own” law firms (in fact, if they did, I’m sure FE Week would do a big article about “WHY DID HULL COLLEGE BUY A LAW FIRM???”).

          To be hired for anything, I’m sure Law firms have to be independent and DFE approved. Who’s going to jeopardise their entire career and law firm to manufacture or disregard evidence from a whistleblower investigation?

          As for why it was changed, maybe the whistleblower had the same logic failure and got scared, and as the adults in the room, had to be re-accommodated?

        • Facts Please

          Yes, I agree. Appointment of a law firm in some way connected to the college wasn’t wise. But I guess that was a decision of the governors. There is a much bigger story/debate in all this, that affects all colleges, about the amateur nature of governing bodies, but that’s for another time. For the moment, the point is: the principal can hardly be blamed for a decision of the governors. It’s apparent from some of the comments that some people will use any tool with which to beat someone doing a good job, turning around a dinosaur, out of some sort of personal dislike. Sorry, but that smacks of the schoolyard. Without the package of the bail-out, recovery plan, and this principal that was agreed with the FE Commissioners the college would be dead in the water. Be careful what you wish for!

  6. The Future Proofing chapter of Hull College Group management certainly knew how to re invest the government bail out funds.
    The leadership team also topped up their squanderable funds with money raised by their teaching staff for the exclusive benefit of students.
    Monies raised through merchandise sales to promote and ensure quality presentation of School of Art and Design student exhibitions: and funds raised through the sale of print works (made by a late colleague) to establish a student prize trust fund, were absorbed by the college finance department.

    This investigation is implying that college management firmly believe that CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME.

  7. Bertie Baggy

    I wonder how many times the PR teams at Hull College (and Highbury College with the lobster story) sat in meetings thinking ‘what can we say to FE Week to defend these ludicrous items of expenditure’. The Comms people must have said ‘give me something rigorous to set out our defence’ and there is clearly no robust or credible defensive position available. Here is public money being wasted. As with the Highbury story, where is the scrutiny and accountability? These stories damage the reputation of the entire sector. Clearly the noise of the 80 piece orchestra drowned out the voices saying ‘this will not look good if the cost of this activity ever gets out’. Well done again FE week for uncovering this.

    • Apparently their journalistic skills in realising orchestras cost money wasn’t up to realising that concerts with paying guests also generate income and including both the income and expenditure figures in the article: did the concert actually make a profit? And if it did, why is this article even here? And even if it didn’t, but was a commercial marketing venture, is it FE Week’s new brief to judge every single marketing initiative of every FE institution in the country?

  8. Andrew Marks

    “In August 2018, Steven Yardley, at the time the college’s vice principal corporate and commercial, spent the afternoon on a 43-foot luxury yacht as a client of Pace Communications”.

    “Raddings was also behind a tender for a PR Agency, understood to have initially been for £90,000 to support the college with internal communications and reputation management as part of the Fresh Start.
    The tender process was won by Pace Communications, and the company founder and owner, Anita Pace, has confirmed the contract included her attendance at staff and board meetings at a rate of £85 per hour”.

    “Raddings did not respond to the question of whether he knew Pace prior to the tender process”.

    I wonder why the Hull Daily Mail failed to mention Pace Communications by name? They published two stories about this in the last few weeks. Pace wasn’t mentioned in either.

  9. Concerned Observer

    Where are the comments on the other side of what is looking increasingly looking like a witch hunt? I know for a fact that such have been submitted: colleagues concerned about the thrust and tone of FE Week’s reporting have told me that they have posted comments in an effort to rebalance matters and remind us all of the principles of fairness, proper investigation, opportunity to respond, not rushing to judgement, etc. However, it’s notable that none of those comments have been allowed to appear. Why is that?

    • David Shaw

      I think perhaps you need to be reminded that Colleges are publicly funded. With public funding comes the requirement for the control of expenditure, as well as legitimate scrutiny and questioning of what is classed as reasonable expenditure.

      College’s have charitable status and must make sure that the funds they spend ultimately benefit the learners they serve.

      How does a lobster dinner and a night in a five star hotel as a ‘send off’ for a former MIS director benefit the learners? How does a 70 piece orchestra benefit the learners? How does a large spend on champagne benefit the learners?

      None of this expenditure is justifiable, whether it has been signed off by the Board, or not. Any person with an ounce of integrity would know this.

      This needs to be called out and stopped. It’s amazing to me that many College CEOs have come out publicly defending these people. I wonder, are they indirectly defending their own illegitimate expenditure? Too many corrupt people in senior roles who need holding to account in my view.

      • Facts Please

        The best footing for patronising comment is fact. I have seen no reference to a lobster dinner. It was a 70, not an 80, piece orchestra. Prosecco, not champagne. The concert presumably brought in funds – which any investigation that’s allowed to proceed, without sniping, will determine one way or the other. Even if not productive of immediate income, I imagine that the concert was part of an agreed marketing strategy. Again, best to let the investigate determine that. Facts are understandably less exciting than speculation and gossip, but I for one think the latter both unhelpful, and contrary to the principle of fairness.

  10. This doesn’t seem to add up; all these senior whistleblowers were probably around at the time of their recent OFSTED inspection, where effectiveness of leadership and management got a ‘good’ grading. So why didn’t these whistleblowing managers say anything then? There is something not quite right here. OFSTED praise leaders and managers for their decisive action to resolve financial difficulties for heaven’s sake! This was only 5 months’ ago! There appears to be more to this witch hunt than meets the eye!

      • The event, it says, took place ages ago! A long time before OFSTED came. So why were the whistle-blowers sitting on their hands all that time if they really believed that there was financial mis-management? Doesn’t this mean they too are complicit as at the time of OFSTED they were telling inspectors that everything was fine and dandy? I want to know how many whistle-blowers (because the news article is vague – it says many then focuses on one) and why the whistle-blower/s waited until now!? What is special about now? Now people are accusing the college of eating Lobster! That was another college! These articles are pretty dirty and ruin careers before investigations have even been given a chance! I think it is a form of bullying. FE WEEK if you’re going to do this, why don’t you balance the comments and publish why this has blown up in the first place?

  11. Nigel Hampson

    Does anyone remember the Nolan Principles? Clearly the appointment by the college leaders of their own lawyer to carry out the allegedly independent investigation into the multiple concerns shows the college leaders either haven’t heard of Nolan or don’t care.

  12. N Thompson

    Massive debt, hundreds of jobs cut and the Chair of Governors supports the CEO and her husbands vanity projects to run loose at a cost to the tax payer of many thousands . . . . surely the Chair of Governors isn’t fit to run the place?

    • Facts Please

      Yes, the college is in debt, due a bail-out without which it would have closed. That debt arises from decades of problems, planned to be addressed by the college’s recovery plan, approved by the FE Commissioners as a condition of the bail-out. That plan was being rolled out in a very effective way, until such time as someone decided to derail it and attempt to ruin a career. Whichever way you cut it, that’s pretty awful behaviour. Can’t help wondering whether the ‘whistleblower’ was after the boss’s job and was somehow disappointed. The mountains out of molehills nature of the complaint certainly suggests such unpleasant motivation. Why is an innovative marketing strategy a vanity project? What knowledge and experience of marketing do you have? What approach to such works well with 16-18 year olds? I don’t know, so would defer to those that do. Please, let’s stop harping and let the investigation run its course.

  13. Just a few thoughts to add to the context…

    Hull College has a CEO who was appointed in turbulent circumstances. Ms Swithenbank was appointed as Deputy CEO to Gary Warke based primarily on her recent appointment as an OFSTED Inspector in order to strengthen the curriculum prior to the expected inspection due later in the year.
    Shortly after her appointment the true financial circumstances of the Hull College Group came to light leading to the intervention of the FE Commissioner. The Hull College Principal Gray Towse and the Group Finance Director Tony Sutton had already moved on to pastures new.
    Gary Warke resigned moving on initially to the Manor Property Group in East Yorkshire and subsequently to a post of Qualifications Developer at the Ministry of Education at Abu Dhabi UAE.

    Therefore, you have a new member of senior staff unfamiliar with the Hull College Group dealing with a financial crisis that was still not fully identified. Since that point there has been an almost 100% turnover of senior staff with the Principals of Harrogate and Goole retiring/resigning, the replacement Director of Finance leaving along with others who held senior positions under Gary Warke with ad hoc interim replacement positions being filled at short notice. Many of these staff left under NDA’s which another poster suggests are not unusual in Education and the wider business environment. Almost like a Jeremy Corbyn shadow cabinet. In addition, there have been three Chairs of Governors during this period plus other changes to the membership of the Governing Body leading to a possible lack of oversight and support.

    The knee jerk reaction to cut expenditure via staffing costs has led to a knowledge management crisis in a number of academic areas with course provision being withdrawn in both full- and part-time provision leading a criticism as to the colleges role within the community and a movement away from the core provision through sub-contracting and top-slicing.

    It is not unreasonable to assume that Ms Swithenbank expected her post of Deputy CEO to enhance her senior leadership experience. Immediately prior to Hull College her first permanent SLT appointment was for 4 months at Peterborough Regional College as VP Curriculum (Again based on her recent appointment as an OFSTED Inspector). Before that she held interim management posts at Grimsby for 1 year 10 months and prior to that just 1 year 3 months as Head of School at City of Wolverhampton College.

    The point I am trying to make is that the post appears to have been a very much a poisoned chalice with little in the way of consistent support – discuss?