Probe finds ‘funding irregularities’ in huge salary of Weston’s ex-principal

The college's longstanding chair has now stepped aside amid ESFA intervention into retired boss Sir Paul Phillips' pay

The college's longstanding chair has now stepped aside amid ESFA intervention into retired boss Sir Paul Phillips' pay

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Fraud investigators have exposed “funding irregularities” involving payments to England’s former highest paid principal Sir Paul Phillips, FE Week can reveal.

The government has intervened and longstanding chair Andrew Leighton-Price has stepped aside at Weston College, where Phillips worked for over 20 years and employed his son as chief financial officer.

Tim Jackson, an adviser to the FE Commissioner and former principal of Sparsholt College, has been parachuted in to lead the college’s governing board while investigations continue.

Weston College is yet to publish accounts for 2022/23 but previous financial statements show Phillips was paid £357,000 and £362,000 in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Paid 9.6 times median wage

The government’s probe follows revelations in FE Week that Phillips earned a basic salary of 9.6 times more than the median pay of his full-time staff in 2022 – the highest pay multiple across the college sector. He was set to take on a unique remunerated role of “president” after he retired but governors U-turned after the controversial plan thwarted the college’s recruitment process for a successor.

Interim principal Jacqui Ford told staff yesterday the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s counter fraud and investigation team, through auditor BDO, had “uncovered some historical failures of financial management and controls, and failure to disclose certain financial information”.

Weston College has now been handed a financial notice to improve (NTI) which says: “The investigation has found failures of management and controls, including high remuneration packages to the retired ex-principal, and failure to disclose such details of senior pay as required through the ESFA’s college accounts direction.”

The NTI, published today, also found the college failed to declare an “in scope payment” to Phillips on a Managing Public Money return in April 2023.

The college has now been requested to hand over all information relating to the payments for the FE Commissioner Shelagh Legrave’s assessment on the “failing to manage and report accurately on payments made to the retired ex-principal.”

Once the assessment is completed, the FE Commissioner may impose further conditions on the college.

In the meantime, Ford, the chief finance officer and the “appropriate governors” have been summoned to attend regular meetings with DfE and must supply the government with a draft single improvement plan.

The college nor the government commented on the full nature of the financial irregularities at the time of going to press.

Staff are “not massively surprised” about the intervention, according to FE Week sources.

Phillips was appointed as one of the government’s national leaders of further education in 2017 and knighted for services to further education in 2022. Weston College was awarded the Association of Colleges award for excellence in governance last year.

Phillips retired from his principal role in August 2023. His departure was highly commemorated by the college, which organised a donation page for a holiday for Phillips and his wife, and a staff lunch that was set to show a video of staff lip-syncing Tina Turner’s Simply the Best, tailored to Phillips’ tenure at the college.

His son Joe Phillips joined the college in 2010 and has held posts including vice-principal for finance and business planning, deputy principal and most recently chief operating officer.

Joe Phillips resigned in late 2023.

Paul Phillips’ 2021 total pay packet included a basic salary of £222,000, “benefits in kind” of £28,000, a “deferred payment” from a “retention scheme” of £37,000, plus pension contributions of £70,000.

His basic salary shot up by 16 per cent to £258,000 a year later. He also received £29,000 for benefits in kind and £75,000 pension contributions.

Phillips’ pay packet for 2023, his last year in post, is not yet known.

The government requires colleges to publish their accounts by January 31 each year. The counter fraud investigation is understood to be the reason why Weston College has delayed publishing its figures for this year.

University and College Union regional official Nick Varney said: “For years [Weston] management failed to properly negotiate and reward our hard-working members, who remain some of the lowest paid in the further education sector. If this intervention finally creates the opportunity to reset industrial relations and open up the secret world of senior management at the college, we are all for it.”

‘No threat’ to college’s future

In a video sent to staff by interim principal Jacqui Ford, she made clear the intervention notice “focuses on the actions of staff no longer at the college” and does not threaten the college’s financial sustainability.

She added that the NTI will not impact day-to-day operations and was not a reflection of the quality of education at Weston College, which earlier this year was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted including for leadership and management.

“I have full confidence that we will quickly meet the requirements of the notice to improve and will restore the confidence of the ESFA,” Ford told staff.

Incoming chair Tim Jackson is expected to begin his role next month. He has already met with the board, staff and incoming permanent principal Pat Jones who is set to take the reins in July.

Ford told FE Week: “The college is cooperating with the Department for Education and the FE Commissioner’s team on the matters identified, and to implement the conditions set out in that notice within as short a period of time as possible.

“In the meantime, the college is continuing to operate normally in serving our students, communities and businesses and we’d like to thank our staff for their hard work and professionalism at this time.” 

FE Week has attempted to contact Paul Phillips, Joe Phillips, Andrew Leighton-Price and the DfE for comment.

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8 Comments

  1. A Nonymous

    All this while we had to fight through a union to recieve a 3. 4% pay rise and during a time of Austerity. Not to mention 3.4% of a poor wage to start with. This is why I got out…

    • I worked at the college for over 10 years and people were given jobs just because of who they knew. You wouldn’t get a pay rise until you threatened to leave. People were struggling and going to food banks to get by and all the top dogs
      We’re getting car allowances and bonuses for our hard work. The place is a joke

  2. “I know all of the CEOs personally and they all care passionately about learners”

    I wonder if a certain someone regrets his article for the TES back in the day.

  3. A brighter future was certainly created at the expense of others. I for one thoroughly enjoyed my jacket potatoes for my hard work. I’m still surprised there was a leaving gift fund considering how high the salary was, expecting staff to donate to it.

    This is why I got out

  4. You have to lay the blame firmly at the Board of Governors’ feet, allowing the recruitment of his son with Financial management duties and not having effective control over Paul’s Salary…or indeed, anything Paul did.

    They should have all been replaced when this story first came to light and must certainly never be allowed to return.

  5. Finally left this year after many years on a temporary agency with no prospect of being given a permanent contract. Years of struggling financially working alongside permanent contracted staff doing the same role but with no security!

  6. Anonymous

    There are so many wonderful practitioners working at Weston College with the best interests of their students at heart. It is sad that this is being overshadowed by this investigation. I cannot comment on what has gone on behind the scenes, but any organisation that has exiting staff sign an NDA in return for their silence has much to hide.