Removal of head buys peace at school

Cheltenham College accused of 19th-century work practices
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The Independent Online
The head of Cheltenham College has resigned despite a parents' campaign to prevent his removal from the school by governors. Peter Wilkes has decided to leave the public school next summer even though an independent inquiry found that attempts to remove him had breached both natural justice and employment law. The inquiry's report also accused the school of having "19th century" employment practices.

Mr Wilkes said yesterday that he was leaving to prevent the school from tearing itself apart. A compromise agreement between parents and governors at Cheltenham is expected to be struck today. Parents had demanded that Mr Wilkes should stay, that several of the governors should go, and that parents should be given seats on the governing body.

The president of the body, Nigel Farrow, resigned last week. Others may go in a restructuring exercise as part of the peace deal now being struck.

Mr Wilkes was asked to resign after the school slipped from 147th to 205th in A-level league tables. The governors, who include General Sir John Waters, former deputy supreme allied commander Europe and Sir Michael Perry, chairman of Unilever, also criticised his managerial style and his relationships with senior staff.

However, a meeting of parents voted by 620 to seven in favour of Mr Wilkes' reinstatement and of the resignation of the school council (governors). They were also angry that they were initially given no explanation of the head's dismissal.

The case has highlighted the power of governors in private schools. All state schools are required to have elected parents on their governing bodies but independent schools are not. Cheltenham parents, who pay fees of around pounds 12,000 a year, say they should be told more about what is going on.

An independent inquiry into the dispute by Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Cheltenham-based Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, was presented to governors last week. It said the management of independent schools should be open to public scrutiny, if only to ensure that justice was seen to be done.

Mr Higgins wrote: "It is expected in the 1990s that the normal rules of natural justice, not to mention employment legislation, are observed. It is my view that in this case neither was observed. It seems ironic that a council which is looking for a dynamic leader to take the college into the 21st century... can still be operating employment practices which were perhaps more common in the 19th century."

Mr Wilkes said it was in the best interests of the school that he should not seek reinstatement. "Parents have been mounting a wonderful campaign to have me reinstated. While I hated the idea of letting down my loyal parents, the school's interests had to be paramount. This is tearing the place apart."

Mark Hicks Beach, chairman of the parents' committee set up to fight Mr Wilkes' case, said he was very disappointed by the resignation.

"Mr Wilkes is a superb headmaster who has done a lot for the school, but it had to be his decision.

"Both he and his wife have been through a lot of stress and strain in the last few weeks, and I can understand it. Whatever he has done has been in the best interests of the school," he said.