Battle of Cheltenham fizzles out as head agrees to go

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Peter Wilkes, the sacked headmaster of Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire, has put an end to the battle between governors and parents at the famous boys' school by announcing that he does not want to be reinstated.

Mr Wilkes was dismissed by the school's governing council earlier this autumn after the school dropped into the third division of the public school league tables.

The decision provoked protests from parents, who said he was the victim of crude market forces. They threatened to withhold their fees and called for the resignation of the entire 24-man governing council.

But in a letter to parents this week, Mr Wilkes said that leaving the school, four years short of his full term, and ending the dispute would be in the best interests of the pupils.

The parents have none the less scored some important points: the president and deputy president of the council have resigned; and last week a report by Tony Higgins, chair of the Universities and Colleges Admissions System, agreed that Mr Wilkes's dismissal went against "natural justice".

"It seems ironic that a council which is looking for a dynamic leader to take the college into the 21st century, with all the requisite managerial skills and techniques, can still be operating employment practices which were perhaps more common in the 19th century," wrote Mr Higgins. The council has now agreed to undertake a major reform of its constitution.

The report did not, however, find that Mr Wilkes was dismissed as a direct result of the school's fall into the third division of the Daily Telegraph's independent school league tables.

This was the issue that had attracted most public attention. Unlike many high-flying competitors, Cheltenham has a policy of accepting any sixth-former capable of gaining three A-levels, whether at E or A grade.

Even though the school's academic standards were praised by the independent schools' inspectorate, Mr Wilkes's wife, Alice, says the governors wanted stricter entrance requirements.

In a letter to the Gloucestershire Echo, she wrote: "It is very dangerous and utterly wrong for boys and girls to feel 'failures' at such an early stage in their lives."

And in an interview with The TES she said: "There's a difference between the needs of young people and the aspirations of governors who, I think, see the results as reflected glory."

The council has maintained that its criticism is of Mr Wilkes's managerial abilities, rather than the school's academic performance.

This week parents and the council issued a joint statement promising that there would be no change in the school ethos.

"Making the most of each pupil's abilities is still the foremost concern.

"Certainly we want to improve all standards if possible, but for all pupils and not just for the most gifted."

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