Unpresidented: College in ‘crisis’ over best-paid CEO’s new role

Governance concerns as accusations of nepotism also come to light

Governance concerns as accusations of nepotism also come to light

Exclusive

A college is facing “serious questions” over its governance following accusations of nepotism and a newly created role of president for England’s highest-paid principal which has thrown the recruitment process for his successor into disarray.

Multiple attempts to fill the post at Weston College, first advertised in October, have failed and at least two job offers to successful candidates have been withdrawn. Some interviewees have questioned the board’s decision to keep Sir Paul Phillips on in a remunerated role after he retires this summer.

Eyebrows have also been raised after it came to light that Phillips’ son has held a senior leadership position responsible for the college’s finances and has recently been promoted to chief operating officer.

Current Cornwall College deputy principal Kate Wills had resigned from her post to become Weston College principal from September 1. Cornwall College has since appointed a successor. But her new job offer was withdrawn last week in mysterious circumstances.

According to a Weston College spokesperson, the board and Wills “had asked” Phillips to support the new principal for an “unspecified period of time”.

The board of governors, chaired by Andrew Leighton-Price, told staff in May in memos seen by FE Week that it was “absolutely key” that the role of president be created as it will support initiatives around governance, profile bids, the Centre for Excellence in SEND and various events, as well as being “responsible for mentoring the principal et al”. 

The president position, which FE Week understands will be remunerated, had allegedly rung alarm bells with candidates being interviewed for the principal post.

One offer was withdrawn as early as November during the first round of recruitment. Two more rounds followed, with the college finally appointing Wills as principal before withdrawing the offer. 

Wills told FE Week: “Following discussions between the board of Weston College and myself, both parties have agreed not to confirm my move to the college at this time.”

A Weston College spokesperson said: “We do not propose to comment about the appointment of Kate Wills as a successor to Sir Paul. An announcement will follow at the appropriate time.”

The spokesperson added that “while discussions have taken place” around the president role, Phillips “has not agreed any finalised arrangements to this end”.

Union officials said the principal situation was “very worrying”.

Nick Varney, the University and College Union regional official, said: “Sir Paul’s demand to be named honorary president is creating a crisis at the college. No one is sure who is actually in charge, and the person appointed as principal has now had her career thrown into disarray. 

“There are now serious questions for the board of governors to answer.”

‘Sir Paul’s personal fiefdom’

Phillips is the highest-paid college principal in the country, earning a total package of £362,000 in 2022, as revealed in FE Week’s principal pay analysis this month. Known as Dr Paul to staff and governors, Phillips was due to retire three years ago, but stayed for the pandemic period. 

In his time as principal, Weston College was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, though it has not been inspected for a decade. According to its latest accounts, the group generated a surplus after tax of £218,000 in 2021/22, down from a surplus of £1.1 million the year before.

Phillips was awarded a knighthood last year and named a “national leader of further education” by the government in 2017.

In anticipation of Phillips’ departure now planned for August, the corporation has arranged numerous events to celebrate his retirement – despite him taking up the presidency.

On June 29, a retirement dinner is set to take place with a celebrity host. The next day a final staff meeting and lunch is scheduled, where a recreation of a “Love Actually”-style photo montage will be shown.

Staff were also asked to attend filming slots last week where they would lip sync a tailored version of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best, including the chorus: “You made us the best, better than all the rest, better than anyone, and we have passed the test, we’re grateful for you, leading us with joy each day, it tears us apart, knowing you’re retiring today.” The final music video is poised to be played at the staff meeting.

In addition to a digital card for all staff and learners to sign, the finance department has set up a donation page on the college’s website. Financial donations will be used to purchase holiday vouchers for Phillips and his wife to go on “a special trip to remember us all at the college”.

The festivities have reportedly left a sour taste in the mouths of many staff members at Weston, especially in light of the strikes last October over pay, and the exorbitant pay package agreed by the board to Phillips.

“Our pay is appalling compared to the leadership team and other colleges around England,” remarked one staff member who wished to remain anonymous. They added that some staff are discussing whether to boycott the farewell meeting.

“I do not want to shame the work that we do at Weston College. The staff make the college not Dr Paul, and I certainly do not want to pay for him to have a holiday when I myself have not been able to afford one for three years.

“We have team members going to the food bank,” they added. “We are not a cult, and he is not our leader.”

A Weston College spokesperson said the events for Phillips “befit his unparalleled contribution to the college, and FE nationally, over the last 21 years of his tenure”.

They added: “The costs associated with the event are limited, since it is held on college premises, with catering usually provided by learners, giving them an opportunity to showcase their achievements.”

UCU’s Varney said that the staff have been ignored by the college’s governors. 

“Weston College looks like it is being run as Sir Paul’s personal fiefdom, and it shows that further education’s governance model is not fit for purpose. We need a new model that works for staff and works for students,” he said.

A family business

Multiple sources have raised concerns with FE Week about the board approving the appointment of Phillips’ son, Joe, as a senior leader in charge of finances.

Joe Phillips has recently been promoted from his job as Weston College’s vice-principal for finance and business planning to the roles of deputy principal and chief operating officer.

Weston College maintains that Paul Phillips had “no influence” over his son’s promotion and none of his positions since joining the college in 2010 have had any conflict of interest. The college also said that his appointment was “transparent, competitive and robust” and he was unanimously appointed to the role.

“There is no conflict of interest in respect of his previous or new position since, as deputy principal, he reported to another leadership board member alongside the chair of audit committee, with a further officer from the Association of Colleges. This fully mitigated any potential conflict of interest and was approved by the college’s external auditors,” a college spokesperson said.

Governance experts told FE Week that colleges must publicly publish a conflict of interest policy on their website, as mandated by charities law. Weston College has only published a conflict of interest policy for governors. 

“It is not just a matter of poor governance, I think it could be a breach of the law as well not to have a conflict of interest policy. If they haven’t got a conflict of interest policy, they ought to have board minutes which actually deal with this particular point and issue,” one expert told FE Week.

“That doesn’t sound right to me,” they added when asked about Joe Phillips’ positions and promotion. “He may be the best person for the job, in which case some procedures would need to be put into place to manage the conflict of interest.”

The expert also refuted the claim that conflicts of interest can be approved by external auditors. “They don’t have any governance responsibilities to them,” they said.

This is not the first time that questions have been presented over the college’s structure. According to corporation minutes from 15 December 2021, one governor questioned the “firewall between related parties” in the new structure.

Weston did not respond to FE Week’s requests to see its conflicts of interest policy.

The Department for Education and FE Commissioner declined to comment.

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34 Comments

  1. Joe bloggs

    I recently left the college after many years of working there. Incredibly toxic culture- like a cult or abusive relationship. Bolstering staff with praise and gifts, then telling them they’re replaceable and gaslighting if someone complains. HR go straight to the SLT if you raise concerns, unfair practice and discrimination for health needs and maternity is standard practice, and a culture of family promotion is current. Who you are related to is of higher importance than work ethic, experience, time spent or age. It took me months to get over it, and can only see the place for what it really is now, from the outside, and in a healthy workplace. Glad to see people are speaking out finally! It’s long overdue.

    • The leadership of Weston College have run the institution by fear for many years. While some of the acholades are genuine a lot are over inflated. Paul has aggressively led the College dominating senior leadership and Governors to enable him to get his way. The eye watering salary, appointment and promotion of his son and President post are simply a few examples of a multitude of others. A proper investigation into Weston College is needed which in my opinion should lead to the stripping of his knighthood, blocking of the President post and several senior Governors standing down. This is appalling and cannot be allowed to be swept under the carpet.

      • Anonentity

        Dear Anon,
        You, ‘Sir’, are clearly Paul Phillips and I duly claim my £10.
        Only Paul Phillips could have written such a deluded comment.

      • Anonentity

        Dear Reader,
        To clarify. This was supposed to appear below / in response to the other ‘Anon’ comment. Hopefully that now makes sense!
        Apologies
        Anonentity

    • Joanne Bloggs

      Joe Bloggs, this was also my experience of working there for over a decade. Made to fear for your job and security by upper management, including direct threats to whole departments in front of the entire college staff. I fell into the trap of believing this was typical of working in education however since leaving have had a much more positive experience.
      There is a general ‘cult’ure of “who you know or are related to getting far and everyone else living in fear for their livelihoods.

    • These comments are way wide of the mark, and imo from people who have not understood how bad weston college was before Dr Phillips took over. He has not only transformed the college he has gone way beyond the role and transformed the area giving jobs to 100s of people many of whom he has personally supported through times of significant crisis. The standard of education has risen massively for our young people. You will always get some who feel the need to go in on people and those reading I hope can see these comments for what they are. Hundreds of staff I know would agree with the statement from our late majesty…that ‘recollections may vary’

      • There is no disputing that Paul has had a significant impact during his tenure but let’s not forget he has not done it single handedly and he has been in receipt of a salary in excess of £300k plus a significant benefits package on top for doing so.

        To say he has personally given 100’s of people jobs or personally helped those in crisis is ridiculous. Whilst he has of course been involved and made decisions, let’s not forget where the funding for those jobs has come from (Definitely not his pocket!)

        There may be many staff who’s ‘recollections vary’, but there are very sadly many who have experienced the toxicity of the College but are too afraid to speak out for fear of repercussion and ultimately their employment and livelihood.

      • Karma lover

        ^clearly written by dr Paul himself

        I seriously cannot wait for the full investigation to unfold and for all of the corrupt people who played a part in this to get their comeuppance…

  2. Simon T

    The abuse of power, nepotism and dubious financial rewards have long been known about but never investigated. Ofsted failed in their duty to inspect without fear or favour. A full external financial audit must happen as a matter of urgency.

    • NoSiree

      For his entire time there Paul employed a staff member who’s main role was to apply for every recognition and personal award going, on his behalf. The inappropriate use of College monies to feed an unquenchable ego over the past decades is disgraceful in my opinion. And in relation to his Son’s appointment… Having experienced (in my opinion) the teenager style social skills myself… Shame on you, Governors!

  3. I thought I would do some background reading to gain a better understanding of the article and started with Corporation meeting minutes. I don’t think I have ever seen so many redacted items or parts of items. Transparency rules. Clearly!!!

    Hopefully the College will make a full statement and the experience of staff is better than one would think from the article and the one comment to date

    • “I know all of these CEOs personally and I know they care passionately about learners” – yes this was in 2018 but these were the words of David Hughes in an article in which he preached that “principles deserve compassion”

      And he wonders why FE is unfunded. It’s about time the AoC come out and make it clear that they will not tolerate these behaviours (as Julian Gravatt did in reference to the Bourneville College scandal)

  4. Johnny Jones

    This is happening in colleges up and down the country. I hope other colleges will be exposed but staff are too scared to speak up and challenge the status quo. Some colleges have had so many leadership changes that they can’t have a clue what they are doing or what is actually going on! It’s not how good you are, it’s who you know. Never challenge the poor quality of education or you’ll be sacked! FE is so toxic and corrupt and it’s about time something was done about it. Principals and CEO’s should be shaking in their boots but they aren’t because they are all friends with those in high places – FE commissioner, Ofsted inspectors. government officials etc.

  5. The first red flag is why a CEO would want to appoint their son as COO, and why the son would want to work for their dad. It’s a College for goodness sake not a family business. Nothing can mitigate against that level of conflict of interest. How bizarre that the governors allowed it, and that they thought it was the auditors job to sanction it. Ofsted will have a field day.

  6. Tony Allen

    If only some of this is true, then it further undermines AOC’s case that colleges are strapped for cash. In this case, clearly not!

  7. Jane Bloggs

    After many years working in this cult and thankfully a couple of years out, I am just about getting over me experiences now!
    The place is run by systemic bullying that starts from the top. Your job is often under threat, you are enthusiastically encouraged to access study through, but not paid for by the college and often not offered the job that required the qualification that YOU paid for. The place is famed for its‘ ‘restructuring’’ which in a nutshell is applying for your own job and not getting but if you are lucky you may be offered one with more responsibilities and less pay. The end of term meetings are a pantomime with the man himself as the star of the show offering breadcrumbs to his loyal followers – absolute cringe fest.

  8. Judi Harper

    Having worked at the college under Paul Phillips’ tenure I can only agree with all of the above comments. He was, initially a force for good and mproving standards, but then sought to maximise his power and financial gain, through fear, continual restructuring, and yes, nepotism
    A weak and corrupted governing body allowed him to do this over the last 15 years

  9. There are some great members of staff at the college but unfortunately they are taken advantage of by egotistical narcissists at the top. It’s been a long standing notion that people working there go “above and beyond” but it appears that goodwill alone has rendered itself over, and rightfully so. There is a high level of corruption which is glossed over with incentives such as prizes and hampers; whilst some people will always be rewarded, others are left in the dark and not recognised because they *just* do their job. The notion that staff have been asked to record lip synchs to “Simply the best” is grotesque, especially when you consider the cost of living and state of education. It suggests to me that the people orchestrating such events are out of touch with the teaching and curriculum staff, who work tirelessly in challenging conditions without appropriate pay or holiday. I would also guess that they work directly with the CEO and lap up the narrative from the top. How out of touch do you have to be to ask employees to contribute to holiday vouchers for the CEO who earns 9.6 times their annual salary? Ludicrous. It’s time for their staff to shed light on the reality of the college in a protected manner, so that staff and student experiences are improved long term. Time to get people involved and expose the corruption, too. I know lots of people that have been frightened to leave the college because they become indoctrinated with cult ethos; they now thrive in other establishments with respect and recognition. Time for fairness, time for change!

  10. Anita Bell

    I just can’t understand how the governors can be so careless! What are they doing if not challenging and holding the CEO to account? Where is the chair in all this and how can he not see that no one wants to go in to a CEO job with their predecessor still interfering! Looks to me like the board is complicit and the FE commissioner should get involved.

    • Mary Poppins

      It’s been going on for years. The most toxic place I have worked. He has his favourites and one of the governors is his best pal!
      So many senior staff have had their desks cleared overnight. The yearly meeting is indeed a pantomime. Often staff were presented with an award then shortly after given the boot! You have to have been amongst it to believe it. There are many previous staff that were treated so badly.
      There are some fabulous staff still there, who really do care about the learner experience. If your face doesn’t fit, or you don’t say yes to everything, or not related your paid off quickly and out the door.
      I hope that more people speak up, and the leadership and governing body reviewed.

  11. Jason Bloggs

    I agree with all these comments above! Having worked at Weston college for over a decade and experienced multiple “restructuring”. I left just under 3 years ago and as soon as I was “out” of the cult I immediately realised that everyday before work I would experience anxiety! Only upon leaving did I realise this was not normal! My own experience of going on maternity leave and being rang constantly and pressured back to work before I was ready into a ‘new’ role with little support was just horrible! And it is devastating to know that I was not the only one who experienced this for having a baby, women are definitely punished for having children. And it was very much an open secret that being of child bearing age is a factor when deciding promotions with our faculty. When voicing your opinion you are sent to HR and made to feel your job is at risk but you are also love bombed into staying and thinking this behaviour is ok. Cohesive control within a workplace is not ok!

  12. Veracious employee

    Sadly this article and the comments that have been made reflects exactly what is going on at Weston College.

    Whilst extortionate salaries and renumeration is being awarded to those at the top, cuts to staff on the ground and resources are constantly being made. Staff are literally having to fight tooth and nail to get financial approval to be able to buy the necessary resources required for their students learning.

    Staff are having to use food banks and other charity resources just to be able to survive and put food on the table so you can only imagine the level of upset and anger that was caused when an email was sent asking for donations for Paul to have a holiday.

    The College has been awarded Investors in People Champion status but the culture is truly toxic. Staff are afraid to give their honest opinions on ‘anonymous’ surveys for fear of recourse so it could be argued that the result isn’t a true reflection. There have been many occasions when the performance of particular departments and individuals has been called out and berated in front of the rest of the College staff at full staff meetings. Hardly the approach of an organisation and leader who claims to champion the wellbeing and mental health of his staff.

    There is zero transparency across the organisation with staff terrified and afraid to challenge or speak up in fear of repercussion, security of their employment and ultimately their livelihood.

    With a Chair of Governors who is completely in awe of the Principal and willing to act on his every request no matter the cost, one has to wonder what or how much his part of the deal is?

    As the article and other comments suggests, a full external review of the College and Governing body is required urgently.

  13. Jane Doe

    I worked with Kate Wills at a college in Somerset and she is amazing, learner focused, hard working and very interested in staff voice. Above everything Kate Wills has integrity. I know for example that in her College, she and the CEO are Ofsted inspectors and they refuse to be paid twice from the public purse so their Ofsted fee goes into a staff well-being fund to pay for staff activities. She would have been brilliant at sorting out our culture and refocusing Weston. In my opinion any College with her as Principal would be a great place to work. I hope we might still get her as Principal.

  14. Ex-employee

    Sadly, having worked for the college, I can relate to many of the comments below. I’ve never experienced such coercive, controlling, narcissistic behaviours which are driven from Paul downwards. Senior managers are so fearful, that they behave in a way which they themselves cite as being wrong. Workplace bullying and backstabbing is common place (actually even encouraged), again born from the fear that, if you don’t demonstrate results, you could be next to be shown the ‘Weston College revolving door.’ Teams were named and shamed, regardless of the pressure put on them to perform.
    Paul (with assistance from his PAs) would arrange all expenses paid trips for governors and key contacts, including for example, seeing Elton John in concert at Cardiff (all attendees being taken on a coach and then wined and dined), theatre trips, all-expenses paid evening meals, Christmas meals held at a local pub etc. These trips (often held at weekends and in the evenings), were on top of multiple awards ceremonies and the Governors Christmas Dinner, often featuring a ‘film’ produced in advance. The ‘unspoken’ ‘two strikes and you’re out’ rule, whereby if you declined an invite twice (regardless of family commitments, your health etc) you were put on a black list, was well known amongst fearful staff, as was the ‘acceptable dress code’ rules.
    During my time at the college I saw very senior managers working until 1-2am, fearful that if they ‘didn’t go the extra mile’ they would be out and indeed, a few senior managers who had worked there for 10+ years were shown the door once their face simply didn’t fit anymore. There were investigations but these were ‘buried’. How the College got Investors in People Gold Champion status is beyond me. If staff (both existing and past) were to be given the opportunity to give feedback anomalously and confidentially, I’m sure the result would be very different and this would flag some very significant issues which arrant further investigation. Please don’t ignore all the feedback that has been given in response to this article – there is more than meets the eye and this needs to be investigated.

  15. Adrian

    I attended a job interview for a management role a few years ago; the panel lead by the CEO in question. Ghastly experience; clear nepotism, smug coercion and zero adherence to normal recruitment standards and procedures. Glad to see that finally the toxic culture is being exposed; should have happened sooner as it’s not uncommon and plainly obvious to anyone or any professional representative body willing to look behind the PR hype.

  16. Anon - Not Paul for the cynics

    What a short memory people have. When Paul first arrived, the college was in deficit, had buildings that were falling apart, was facing significant clawback of funding by the Learning and Skills Council. No other college wanted to merge with this college. Now look at it, envy of the FE sector. If it wasn’t for Paul’s leadership, I doubt this college would exist.

    • A concerned parent

      With respect, I don’t think that is the issue at hand. As a parent of someone employed at Weston College the feedback has been the issue is current working conditions in what is felt by a large number of staff as being toxic and unfair. It is also related to unfair pay.
      I’ve seen the college rise from being very small many years ago and that in itself is a fantastic achievement to so many who have learned there. But as it stands today it seems the senior leadership is letting its staff outside of a select few down and that is the issue. There is no smoke without fire and I’ve seen this proved time and time again.

  17. Floss

    I have taught at the college for a long time and I am finding it incredibly frustrating to be spoken about as if we are all mindless, brainwashed cult members. I am not oppressed or in a constant state of fear; I find the college to be a friendly environment and I enjoy my work. In times of personal difficulty, I and my family have benefitted from the support of Sir Paul Phillips, amongst others. I also love my Christmas hamper!

    This is the second time in two weeks that Anviksha Patel has chosen to target Paul Phillips to generate clicks and some of the comments in this discussion are very personal attacks on his character. I understand that people who have left, or are not happy in their work will have strong opinions and I cannot speak for their experiences, but the editors of FE Week should be exercising their duty of care and remember the tragic consequences from the not so distant past when people have been targeted and hounded by the media. Enough now, please let us get on with supporting learners to complete their courses without this horrible distraction.

    • Shane Chowen

      Our reporters do not “choose to target” individuals, they report on the facts. The only other story mentioning Paul recently was a story on pay gaps between college principals and staff, in which he was – completely legitimately – one of many principals mentioned. Given the seriousness of the leadership and governance issues at Weston, our reporting has been proportionate.

  18. The way I was treated after years of loyalty as a student and then paid staff member during and after my maternity leave was vile. Throughout my maternity I was promised my job back when I then decided it was time for me return after 9 months the job was basically given to someone else that could do it part time, I was promised another role part time, interviewed for it and then the job was given to someone as they decided to turn it into a full time role. Which then meant I had no job to return to, no income and the stress of this severely affected my health and family. To anyone wanting to work here don’t, they spit you back out especially if you have a child or a family. Way happier now in my new role