DAMNING allegations about the way Stratford-upon-Avon College is being run – to the detriment of its staff and students – have emerged.
The claims, which include reference to a ‘climate of fear’ and a ‘campaign of bullying’, follow a huge shake-up at the site, instigated by principal Nicola Mannock, who took over two years ago.
The scathing criticisms have been led by Linda Eastap, who resigned as a special needs adviser after only six months in the post because of major concerns about the educational well-being of the students and the treatment of staff by management.
She told the Herald: “I was very excited about the job, but within a couple of weeks I realised there was low morale and a culture of fear, with people fearful for their jobs.”
The claims by Miss Eastap have been supported over the past 18 months by a number of former or existing college staff. The former staff have not been able to go on the record for legal reasons and the current staff have been afraid to go public because it would put their jobs at risk.
But Miss Eastap, who is not bound by any confidentiality agreements, said: “I sensed within a couple of weeks that the management of the college was not going in the right direction. Staff are told to conform and, if they don’t, they’re told to leave – or they make their own decision to leave.”
A former senior manager at the college – who did not wish to be identified – told the Herald: “Never in over 20 years of experience working in further education did I come across any of the practices that I witnessed at Stratford College.
“In my considerable time at the college as a senior manager I was shocked to witness a growing campaign of bullying and intimidation tactics enforced by the principal and CEO, Nicola Mannock.
“She constantly pressurised managers to remove staff from the organisation who did not meet her approval, regardless of their competency, skills and knowledge.
“This had a demoralising impact on the college, to the detriment of staff, which directly impacted on student retention, achievement and success.
“Students were often asked to self-study due to high staff sickness that ultimately led to poor student pass rates. Parents often complained to the college but these complaints were hidden from the governors and Ofsted.”
Another former employee told the Herald: “The college is run on a basis where the students are not put first. The students are not getting the commitment that they deserve.”
The former employee added: “It is like working in East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall or in modern-day North Korea.”
She said she went to her first staff meeting, addressed by the college principal Nicola Mannock. Miss Eastap said: “I was really shocked by the culture. The emphasis seemed to be to get bums on seats. There was little regard for students, some of whom were on the wrong courses or on their second- or third-choice courses.
“For instance, a student who wants to be on a performing arts course would be put on an IT course, or a business course, with a kind of half-promise they could do a performing arts course the following year.
“They were not on the right course, according to the student’s interest, and I thought students’ interests should always be put first.”
She believed information at the college should be “more transparent” so staff knew what the view and the vision of the college was. “If they’re trying to be an outstanding college, it’s not rocket science,” she said. “They just have to listen to the needs of the students and invest in the staff.”
But she added: “It really is a case of ‘put up, or shut up’. There are so many talented staff in that place. I worked with some talented teachers. Their ideas and individuality are stunted by the regime. This doesn’t make for an outstanding college.
“They need to use their imagination and their strengths. But they just have to do what they’re told.”
Last week the Herald was sent yet another anonymous diatribe against the current college management – there have been many in recent times – and this was also devastating in its critique of the college leadership.
The anonymous statement said: “Over the past two years there is clear evidence that the principal at Stratford College is using ‘workplace coercion’ to change the value and belief system of the college and in doing so is creating an unhealthy work environment for all staff.”
The statement added: “Managers and staff are struggling to cope with this difficult situation and are trying to adapt constantly to the undue distress, but this is leading to excessive sickness absences and high staff turnover rates, especially at middle to senior management level.”
But Lord Digby Jones, the chairman of the college governors, staunchly defended Mrs Mannock. He told the Herald: “Nicola is, frankly, a star. She is an acknowledged leader in her field and Stratford – both college and town – is lucky to have her.
“The college was in dire need of root and branch reform at many levels. Nicola grasped that challenge and I am fortunate enough to be her chairman at such an exciting time.
“Reform and change is never easy. In fact, not only are there always (and sadly) casualties, but there is always uncertainty. There can never be enough communication, although frankly some people willfully misunderstand and indulge in selective analysis.”
The statement from the college also included a comment from Maxine Bagshaw, the independent clerk to the corporation, stating that there was “a robust and independent whistle-blowing process in place at the college”.
Ms Bagshaw added: “This allows staff with any genuine issues to raise matters of concern free from discrimination or retribution.”