Parents rebel over prep-school pay off

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Charity Commission asked to investigate principal's Pounds 100,000 severance package. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

Parents with children at a Hampshire prep school are calling on the Charity Commission to intervene after the principal was forced out just two months after he took over.

The decision has split the board of governors. Five have resigned, and the chairman and his deputy have stood down although they remain on the board.

Adrian Gobat, the principal, left the co-educational Hordle Walhampton School in Lymington, in November after a group of governors claimed that the partnership between him and his deputy was not working.

Mr Gobat was offered a Pounds 100,000 severance package and the deputy, Henry Phillips, took over his job.

The Pounds 9,000-a-year school is a merger of the former Hordle House and Walhampton schools. Mr Phillips was head of Hordle House until the summer when Mr Gobat became principal of the new school.

Mr Phillips was given the post of headteacher, though this was seen as subordinate to Mr Gobat's.

The governors'decision to oust Mr Gobat has split the school with Walhampton parents accusing the Hordle side of a "take-over".

There is no suggestion of impropriety on Mr Gobat's part and the governors have confirmed his "integrity and contribution" are not in doubt.

However, the row has called into question the powers vested in governors of independent schools. Parents claim they were not consulted about the decision and in a ballot on a no-confidence motion a majority voted against the board.

A group of parents opposed to the governing body said it would refer the board's "extraordinary behaviour" to the Charity Commission.

They want the commissioners to investigate whether such a large sum of money should have been handed over as severance to Mr Gobat.

They are also to complain formally to the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools over the procedures used by the governors. Parents claim that the board has failed to "keep their house in order".

Kelvin van Hasselt, who has a daughter at the school, said: "We have advised the Charity Commission that they may wish to look at the extraordinary behaviour of these governors and the pay-off given to Mr Gobat."

He added:"All parents feel that the school cannot continue in its deeply divided state. It will be difficult to attract new parents in this apparent state of civil war and neighbouring schools will be the beneficiaries."

Former governors' chairman, Jamie Sheldon, has written to parents informing them that he and his deputy, Ralph Montagu, have bowed to pressure from parents and resigned. However, they are to remain on the board to "provide continuity".

In an earlier letter to parents, Mr Sheldon - who is chief executive of the City derivatives firm GNI Ltd - explained the governors' actions. He said that the original appointments of the two men had been intended to draw on their complementary skills.

But he added: "We closely monitored the effectiveness of that arrangement and made every effort to support this structure and encourage them to work as a team.

"However, it became increasingly evident that the partnership wasn't working as well as we would have liked."

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