Another day, another article in The Stage about ongoing issues at a vocational training college, and another day of silence from our industry. Having campaigned for so long now for the vocational training industry in the UK to have an independent regulator, it would be easy just to give up, however, the issue is far too important to keep quiet about.
At the moment it’s Bird College under the spotlight. Seemingly two group letters to the board expressing concerns around the toxic nature of the management there have failed to yield an investigation. If The Stage is to be believed (and I have no reason to doubt them), the Chair and the Board of Governors have doubled down on their stance, dismissing the serious allegations made without investigation. The reason being. . . that the complaints are anonymous and therefore hold no weight. They suggest that the staff and students should go through their official whistleblowing channels. Of course, what they’re failing to say publicly is that the staff and students can’t do that because they’re scared of the repercussions. They do not trust that their identities will be protected from the people that they’re complaining about – and judging by the response of the Chair, this is with good reason.
I speak with some authority on this having formally run a college which was subjected to a Charity Commission investigation, with my own practice being put under the spotlight, so I get it. . . however what I don’t get is why the hell the college is not shutting this down by holding an investigation. On the day that I was accused of all sorts by my students, I removed myself at once from their classes, even though I knew that I hadn’t done any of the things that they had accused me of, I wanted to ensure that the college was safe for them. As it turned out an entire year group had been horrifically gaslit by a guest creative who had successfully convinced them that I was working against them as part of some sort of power trip. Those student voices needed to be heard and we needed to act on those concerns and allegations. They didn’t have to petition. . . I put the wheels in motion to investigate . . . well me, on the same day.
In our case, the truth unravelled very quickly and within a week that same group of students and I sat down and repaired the damage that the guest creative had attempted to do – as it had been him, not I, who had been on a toxic power trip. Over the days and weeks that followed, and more and more things came to light, we collectively, regained our trust in each other, as of course, I also had feelings about the fact that the students had believed his ridiculous claims. So when the Charity Commission story broke in The Stage some 6 months later, we all knew exactly who was behind it, and why they had done it.
The stark warning to any college in that situation though is that the rumours grow. More and more people exaggerate the lies until the original accusations are piecemeal compared to the rumours. Of course, sometimes the growing rumours prove to be horrifical accurate as the Arts Ed investigation proved.
This whole idea that you won’t investigate complaints by anonymous claimants doesn’t close the conversation down – it begs the question, why are so many people afraid to put their names to their concerns? The Charity Commission failed to properly investigate Trinity because our whistleblowers were anonymous, they like Bird (who incidentally have several courses validated by Trinity), suggested that our sources voiced their concerns via their whistleblowers service. No question about why our whistleblowers were so scared they were using proton servers and burner phones to contact us (I kid you not). People remain anonymous for all sorts of reasons – some of our Trinity whistleblowers stayed anonymous because they were complicit in the alleged falsifying of reports. They had previously signed NDAs for simply reporting on an exam. . . go figure. They stay anonymous because they know, just like the complainants at Birds, that their jobs are on the line if they reveal their identity. Like the students at Birds, too afraid to identify themselves, they believe that their futures will be adversely impacted by spiteful, vindictive staff who are the very people whom they’re complaining about.
If the staff under the spotlight at Birds are innocent then the Board owe it to them to investigate and clear their names. Why on earth would they be closing the conversation down before they’ve even had it?
The difficulty is that the very people who need to be investigated are the people who are opening the emails asking for an investigation. Just like at Trinity, the people that we were evidencing had lied, were the people responding to the Charity Commission saying that they hadn’t. This, and a thousand other reasons, is why our industry needs external, independent regulation