Warm tributes have been paid to Skills Funding Agency chief executive Kim Thorneywork after it was announced she was stepping back to concentrate on her fight with breast cancer.

The agency’s chief operating officer, Paul McGuire, emailed FE sector figures late last month with news that an interim chief executive was being looked for while Mrs Thorneywork was away.

“Kim has been poorly over the last few months. She now has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has started treatment,” he said.

“Although over the last few months Kim has remained as our chief executive, and has been in constant contact, she now feels that she needs to concentrate on getting better.”

Mrs Thorneywork, a chemistry graduate and mother-of-one, was appointed agency chief executive in July last year, replacing Geoff Russell.

Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “We were very sorry to hear of Kim’s illness.

“Kim has always worked closely with the provider network and in her role as chief executive she has built on the principles of partnership and transparency.

“We will continue to work closely with the agency in Kim’s absence.”

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “Our thoughts are with Kim and her family at this difficult time and we send them our best wishes.

“I know Kim will miss the hurly-burly of work with the sector — and we will miss her — but I also know that she’s a fighter and at this time she needs to focus her energy on her health and on her family.”

Mrs Thorneywork began her career as a science teacher in Walsall. Her last
teaching post was as a deputy headteacher in a technology college. In 2003, she entered local government as a school improvement inspector.

In 2006, Mrs Thorneywork joined the Learning and Skills Council as area director for Coventry and Warwickshire.

At the launch of the agency in 2010, she became senior account director for the West Midlands, with a portfolio of 33 FE colleges and more than 160 training organisations.

In May the following year she was appointed executive director of delivery, leading agency work on funding policy, investment and provider performance.

Mike Hopkins, chair of the Principals’ Professional Council and Middlesbrough/Gateshead College Federation chief executive, said: “Kim has been an excellent chief executive of the agency ensuring stability for the organisation while at the same time having to make significant change as a result of austerity.”

He added: “She has worked with great integrity and skill, balancing her commitment as a chief executive of a government agency while ensuring that senior civil servants and ministers received honest, evidence-based analysis, even when the message was not comfortable for them.”

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group, said: “Kim is in the thoughts and prayers of the 157 Group members and they have asked me to send their warmest regards for a speedy recovery.

“We have the highest regard for her work and her support for colleges. We hope Kim will now be able to concentrate on her health and wellbeing — that is what matters most at times such as this.”

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock said: “I would like to wish Kim well and will be thinking of her throughout this difficult time.

“I have immense respect for her and the outstanding leadership she has shown during her time as chief executive of the agency. I hope that we will be able to work together again soon.”

An agency spokesperson said: “Everyone at the agency sends Kim their best wishes for a full and speedy recovery.”

The agency’s Mr McGuire added that it was hoped arrangements for interim cover would be announced “shortly”.