Career plunge after diving error

17th March 2000 at 00:00
A sky-diving accident led to the sacking of college principal Trevor Jones. He speaks to Martin Whittaker after a tribunal backed his claim of discrimination

SELF-CONFESSED action man Trevor Jones always relished a challenge. When he took over as principal of ailing West Oxfordshire College two years ago, he did so with the intention of turning it around.

Within a year he was achieving his aim. But in September 1998 he suffered multiple injuries in a sky-diving accident and spent two-and-a-half months in hospital.

Convinced he could still do his job well, and anxious to plough on with the college's recovery, he pinned his hopes on getting back to work. But he never made it past the college gates - in February last year he was dismissed.

Jones, aged 51, of Witney, Oxfordshire, brought a case for breach of contract and disability discrimination against his former employer. At the employment tribunal in October, the tribunal chairman stated that Trevor Jones had been discriminated against - contrary to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

The college conceded that he was disabled and Mr Jones reached an out-of-court settlement on the first day of the hearing which prohibits him from commenting on the monetary award. But in his first interview since the tribunal, he said he was "disgusted" at the way the college had treated him.

"I've been in education for 25 years and in education management for about 10. They have ruined what had otherwise been an unblemished career - absolutely ruined it."

Trevor Jones is passionate about further education - he came through the system himself after leaving school with no qualifications. When he joined West Oxfordshire College in August 1997 - his first principalship - the college had not hit its funding targets since incorporation and in the previous year it received grade 4s for governance and management in its Further Education Funding Council inspection.

Jones set about turning the college around. He formed collaborations with other colleges and local schools, and a partnership with Oxford Brookes University. He also wrought internal changes, adding a marketing unit and reorganising management and staffing from the top down.

Outside college, father-of-two Mr Jones was just as energetic. He is a one time Territorial Army officer whose interests included running, motorcycle-racing and parachuting. Then on September 20 1998, as he was making his 100th parachute jump at an RAF base at Weston-on-the-Gree, Oxfordshire, disaster struck.

He jumped from 13,000 feet, but his canopy failed to open properly. Although he managed to untangle the chute, he landed badly. He broke his left arm in two places, shattered his left femur, smashed his ankle, broke five ribs, one which pierced a lung, and broke many of the bones in his face. His optic nerve was damaged, leaving him partially-sighted.

He admits the accident was his fault. He was using a new parachute which he'd packed himself. "The only reason I survived was because there was a plastic surgeon jumping that day, who looked after me until they got the helicopter," he said.

Despite his injuries, Jones remains convinced that he would have been able to do his job. He investigated electronic devices and special software which he believes would have helped him overcome his sight problems.

But last February he was dismissed.

"I wanted to go back to work. The thing that I'm more upset about more than anything else is that I'd started to turn the college around.

"I'm a pretty hard guy. I have had injuries not dissimilar to this with racing motorbikes. But when you have injuries like this, you need something to keep you going. Work was 85 per cent of my life - always has been."

He says that with the governors' backing, he was trying to consolidate the college so that it could hit its targets. "There is only so much you can do in a year. I was working day and night to turn things around."

A press release agreed by the college as part of the tribunal settlement confirms this. It is fulsome in its praise of his achievements, saying: "Trevor Jones was successful in his first year of office."

And it charts the improvements he made which "enabled the college to move into many areas of curriculum, now successful, which would have been prohibited by the funding council without the reversal of the previously awarded grade".

These improvements enabled the college to achieve its FEFC tariff unit target for the first time since incorporation."

So why did they sack him? West Oxfordshire College was not prepared to comment further. But Trevor Jones says: "I'm firmly convinced that it was because of the accident."

What now for him? He is still having operations, but can walk with a stick and he is determined to work again. "I'm hoping that there may be some way that I can stay involved in further education. I have a passion for FE. I'd have done nothing in life if it had not been for FE."

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