AS the appointment of a former tabloid newspaper executive to run the Learning and Skills Council was announced this week, it emerged that several highly respected leaders in further education refused to apply for the job when approached by head-hunters.
The decision to appoint Mark Haysom, ex-managing director of national newspapers at the Trinity Mirror Group, was made by a top-level recruitment panel which included the Permanent Secretary David Normington.
The search to replace John Harwood, who retires as LSC chief executive next month, has been fraught with difficulties, as the council could not find the calibre of candidate it had hoped for - one with the required blend of public and private-sector experience.
In an interview with FE Focus, Bryan Sanderson, chairman of the LSC, conceded that seeking a person with such characteristics was "like asking for a man or woman who could walk on water".
The appointment of Mr Haysom raised eyebrows in the FE world, not only because of his complete lack of public-sector experience, but also because he has no experience of education and training.
Moreover, he has recently been steeped in controversy as he left the Trinity Mirror Group suddenly in April. In doing so, he bore the brunt of criticisms for the costly and ineffective cover-price reduction last year.
He quit his post along with three other top managers following a regime change earlier this year. While he will command a pound;200,000 salary at the LSC, it is a step-down financially. Trinity Mirror's accounts for 2002 show that he earned pound;430,000, with share options, taxable benefits and pension entitlements on top.
Mr Sanderson said Mr Haysom is "an excellent man for the job" who will bring much-needed skills from the private sector.
It is still debatable whether such skills might have been found among the refuseniks who, FE Focus has learnt, included Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency; Chris Humphries, director general of City amp; Guilds and a former national Training and Enterprise Council director; and Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College.
A senior FE leader with extensive private-sector experience, who refused when approached by head-hunters, said: "There is a view that if you had a good job, you would not go and do this one, even though they upped the ante on pay."
Originally, the salary for running the pound;9 billion quango was put at pound;125,000.
Mr Sanderson said: "The panel chose Mr Haysom unanimously. There was no bias towards the private sector, although I admit to a slight preference.
"He has a good track record, coming up steadily through the newspaper industry. I am particularly impressed with his time running regional papers where the organisation of business reflects that of the LSC. He will bring a much-needed fresh perspective.
"I can understand people being a bit concerned at an outsider coming in, but this is phase two of the council and we have a very strong board, nearly all with a wealth of public experience."
The first six months would be a very steep learning curve for him, Mr Sanderson said. There were urgent needs to tackle the skills agenda, get more business people involved, improve links with colleges, schools and employers, "and tackle the question of the future of small sixth-forms" - whether to merge or close them.
Mr Haysom said: "I am very pleased to have been selected as chief executive. It is clearly a challenging role but one that I will relish."