Board games too tough for school headmasters

By TONY WALL

A former head of the exclusive King's School in Auckland has hit out at a board structure he says makes it virtually impossible for headmasters to operate effectively.

Richard Pengelly was head of the Remuera private boys' school for 23 years until he was sacked unexpectedly in 1987. He says the sacking ruined his life.

He said yesterday that he was offering support to Neil McWhannell, who resigned last week after two years, citing family reasons.

Mr McWhannell has refused to elaborate on his reasons for leaving, saying he wants to go quietly and with dignity.

The Herald received a fax this week from a teacher at the school who said "constant undermining and subversive actions" from senior staff left Mr McWhannell - who was loved by many pupils and parents - "totally disheartened".

The teacher said one senior staff member waged a campaign to undermine the head and even made bets with other staff members that Mr McWhannell would not return next year.

Mr McWhannell was the Anglican school's eighth headmaster in its 80-year history.

He arrived two years ago with impeccable credentials, having been head at some of Australia's most exclusive schools.

Mr Pengelly, 72, said Mr McWhannell telephoned him seeking advice and seemed devastated. "He doesn't know whether he wants to have anything more to do with education."

Mr Pengelly said the biggest problem at the school was its board structure.

The school was run as a non-profit company, with a board of directors and a "big three" of shareholders who wielded too much power.

"It's a pretty precarious situation. McWhannell had never experienced it before.

"The chairman of the board is also the executive chairman. He has got an office right next door and he's there fulltime.

"It's pretty difficult if you're the boss and you've got staff running to the executive chairman."

Mr Pengelly said he did not have enough support from the board during his tenure. In June 1987, the board summarily dismissed him, citing an alleged breakdown in the working relationship between it and the headmaster.

The then MP for Remuera, Sir Douglas Graham, who put two sons through the school, checked the firing and said he was satisfied the board acted in the best interests of the school.

But fee-paying parents sympathetic to Mr Pengelly started a support and retirement fund for him.

Mr Pengelly said when he heard of Mr McWhannell's experience, he told him it was: "Same [expletive], different day".

Board meddling, "game-playing" and lack of support had made it difficult for him as headmaster.

"I think he [Mr McWhannell] made a very difficult, wise decision early which I should have done many years before - to get out while he's still sane."

Mr Pengelly said his sacking devastated him and his family and his marriage split up partly because of it.

The board chairman, Peter Harrison, said he did not want to comment on the allegations that Mr McWhannell was undermined.

"As far as we're concerned he's resigned and it was all done in a good relationship.

"He was a good bloke.

"The important thing for us is going forward - we have to get on with appointing a new head. We don't know how long it will take to find the right person."

King's School shares a common foundation with King's College, which was founded in 1896.

When the college moved to Middlemore in 1922, King's School was founded in its own right. It now has up to 650 pupils.

Senior school fees are $8148 a year.

Its board of trustees is a who's who of prominent Aucklanders, including physicians, accountants, top lawyers and businessmen.

The five directors are listed by Baycorp as Peter Harrison, solicitor Patrick Gibson, chartered accountant Peter Masfern, specialist physician John Henley and Queen's Counsel David Williams.

* tony_wall@nzherald.co.nz

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