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Hunt for chief shelved;FE Focus

The AOC faces a longer wait for a permanent replacement for Roger Ward. Ian Nash reports.

PLANS to recruit a top-flight political figure to run the Association of Colleges have been grounded while the board reconsiders the organisation's strategy.

The move will anger many principals who say the association has already been too long without a permanent leader at a time when the further education lobby is bidding hard for limited cash.

Delays have already put two possible contenders out of the race since they have taken high-profile jobs elsewhere in the six months since the departure of the disgraced Roger Ward. He went following a TES expose of his business practices.

Baroness Helena Kennedy was seen as a candidate, but she has since become chair of the British Council. Chris Hughes, principal of Gateshead College was another popular choice. But he is to be chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency.

Others understood to be in the running or under pressure to apply include Geoff Hall, assistant director of the Further Education Funding Council, Colin Flint, chief executive of Solihull College and Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the AOC.

After Ward's departure in January it was widely felt that an influential figure such as Baroness Kennedy should take the helm.

There was also pressure to appoint someone with a proven track record at the top of further education and possibly the universities. Ward's deputy Sue Dutton became caretaker. But there was concern among member colleges that the new chief should be distanced from the old guard.

However, many of the new directors are very impressed with the strength of the work of the staff at AOC headquarters and insist the appointment should build on the existing top team.

The entire board is to go into a two-day closed session at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire next weekend, where it is expected to decide a strategy for head-hunting or appointing a new chief.

The old board associated with the Ward regime stepped down in February after considerable blood-letting, culminating in an acrimonious national conference in Birmingham.

A strong lobby against the board had grown in the wake of Ward's departure. The board's opponents gathered the 150 signatures needed to force an emergency general meeting to consider sacking the board.

Eventually, the board did step down, though some directors were deeply unhappy with having been effectively forced to do so although they had done nothing wrong.

The new directors know they must present a squeaky-clean image if the AOC is to retain political influence.

Chairman Jim Scrimshaw said the board was well aware of the need to be "absolutely open" in the appointment of the new chief executive.

He added: "We will follow to the letter Lord Nolan's guidelines on selection for public appointments. But the board has taken the view that there is no need to hurry the appointment. We must first decide what kind of role we want the new chief executive to fill."

The Hartpury session will concentrate on whether the association should have a "management, executive or presidential" figure at the top. "I am expecting that to come out of the meeting and to have time to spend deciding the procedure for the appointment."

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