Tributes have poured in for the “fiercely determined” former college principal Viv Gillespie, who has died after a short illness.
Gillespie had been a stalwart principal in the FE sector, holding the top job at four colleges across England over her 30-year career.
She stood down as principal at Suffolk New College in January 2023 after seven years, at the time explaining her retirement was down to the recent discovery of a medical concern.
The college said she died peacefully on Friday, March 31.
Alan Pease, acting principal at the college and who worked as deputy principal under Gillespie, said: “Our college community is devastated by this news. During her time here, Viv committed to improving the lives of those living in this county and beyond by offering exceptional educational and training opportunities for all.”
Pease said she developed a culture of helping others but was “never the sort of person to shout from the rooftops about her own achievements. She liked to proudly sit in the background and let others take the glory”.
He added: “Viv was fiercely determined, incredibly loyal, honest and a great relationship builder behind the scenes. She was a brilliant figurehead for one of the largest educational facilities in the county and she will be greatly missed by all who knew her.”
Suffolk New College pledged a tribute to celebrate her life and to remember the outstanding contribution she made during her seven-year tenure.
Thérèse Coffey, secretary of state for the environment whose Suffolk Coastal constituency includes Suffolk New College’s coastal campus, on Twitter said: “Very sorry to learn of the untimely death of Viv Gillespie. RIP. As principal of @suffolknewcoll ege [sic] she had helped many students and secured a good Ofsted rating within the last few months.”
Gillespie took her first principal position at City College Plymouth in 2006, serving in that role for six years that included an instrumental role in setting up UTC Plymouth, before moving on to Northumberland College in June 2012.
A seven-month stint there was followed by a post at South Worcestershire College, where she originally joined in January 2013 as an interim principal.
Her LinkedIn profile said that became permanent after six months, where she helped the college bolster its Ofsted rating from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ in a year.
She left in June 2015 to take up the principal post at Suffolk New College, where her achievements included improving its ‘requires improvement’ rating to ‘good’ on two occasions, and overseeing key building developments on campus.
She oversaw the college’s merger with Otley College, now known as Suffolk Rural, and opening of two ‘on the coast’ campuses in Halesworth and Leiston.
Gillespie, who held a first class honours degree in business studies, has also been active in wider Suffolk civil leadership, with board positions including Ipswich Central business improvement district, Ipswich Chamber, the Association of Colleges’ eastern region and as a member of the partnership board during Ipswich’s stint as an opportunity area.
She had also been a trained Ofsted inspector for post-16 providers.
A spokesperson for City College Plymouth said: “As a previous principal at City College Plymouth, we are saddened to hear of the passing of Viv Gillespie. Our thoughts and condolences are with her family.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said Gillespie was one of the country’s longest-serving principals and made an “enormous impact” at each of the colleges she served at.
“Viv brought compassion and good humour to each or her roles, all of which came with their challenges, and she was dedicated to supporting learners to reach their full potential and backed staff to help them achieve this,” he said.
Hughes said that she “worked tirelessly” with employers and professional bodies to ensure FE was recognised as a “valuable asset” to driving skills needs, and added: “She has had a great impact on thousands of people throughout her career, helping them realise their talents and ambitions.
“I would like to send my sincere condolences from everyone at the AoC to her family, friends and colleagues.”
Ian Munro, south west area director at the AoC said: “Viv made a significant positive impact as principal at City College Plymouth, not only in the improvement to the quality of education and training but in the wider community.”