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Principal quits amid 'hush-up' claims

College chiefs fear an outbreak of 'over-zealous' tactics from governors, reports Lucy Ward

A chief executive who was suspended pending an inquiry at his troubled college has stepped down, renewing concerns over disastrous culture clashes between principals and governors.

Dr Patrick Lavery has taken early retirement less than two months after governors at Southampton City College decided to remove him following an outcry over his restructuring plans.

An inquiry launched at the time has now been terminated, infuriating college lecturers' union representatives who claim the truth over Dr Lavery's departure will now never be known.

The college, now being run by two directors while a replacement principal is sought, has renewed its strenuous denials that the inquiry centred on allegations of financial mismanagement.

However, both sides have agreed not to reveal either the terms of Dr Lavery's leaving package or the background to his departure. The agreement was announced in the week that the latest Nolan Committee report, on local public spending bodies, recommended the use of gagging clauses in severance deals only where absolutely necessary.

College NATFHE spokesman Andrew Currie said: "The college is being run like a secret society. The whole issue will now be hushed up."

Confirmation that Dr Lavery is to quit at the end of this month prompted warnings from the Association of Principals of Colleges of the dangers of over-zealous governors moving to oust chief executives without taking adequate steps to resolve difficulties.

New APC president Ben Bennett, principal of Aylesbury College, said: "We have business governors, who are new to the public sector and don't always find it easy to understand the way these things have been handled previously, working with principals who are unlikely to have had any private sector experience. There is a mismatch of experience and expertise."

Two separate attempts are now being made to prevent future clashes between boards and chief executives, which have led to the suspension or sacking of six principals in the past 12 months.

A joint working group involving the APC and the Colleges' Employers' Forum is due to publish guidance on good relations in the summer, while the APC is also planning to issue its own guidelines to members.

Mr Bennett said: "When these incidents happen they send shockwaves through the sector. We want to make sure differences are resolved at an early stage before they get out of hand."

At Southampton City College, a sweeping reform programme drawn up by Dr Lavery involving plans to sack 50 staff has been scrapped. The reorganisation, which included axing half management posts, had sparked a "colonel's revolt" of senior staff.

Moves to stabilise the college, which is struggling with Pounds 1.2 million debts and is losing 30 staff at the end of this term, could now centre on a proposed merger with neighbouring Eastleigh College. A KPMG report on the scheme was being discussed by both colleges as The TES went to press.

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