No winners from Scotch College principal debacle

The decision of Victoria’s oldest continuing secondary school, Scotch College, to withdraw the appointment of its new principal just months from his commencement raises important questions of governance and probity relevant to the entire independent school sector.

How could such a thing happen?

Scotch College terminated the employment of Matthew Leeds, who was set to start at the Hawthorn private school this year.Credit:Joe Armao

Not a single party to the appointment, including Scotch College itself, can escape criticism in what is, at best, a highly embarrassing set of circumstances involving three of the country’s most exclusive private schools.

Matthew Leeds, selected by the 17-member Scotch College Council to be its next principal, was advised late last week that his prestigious appointment would not proceed following revelations of alleged misconduct in a previous role at Geelong Grammar School in 2018.

The precise nature of the allegation remains a mystery. Mr Leeds currently serves as director of academic studies at Sydney’s exclusive Church of England Grammar School – Shore – a position he’s held since leaving Geelong Grammar.

It is understood no allegation of sexual abuse against a child has been levelled against Mr Leeds.

Church of England Grammar School on Sydney’s north shore.

In a flurry of notes late last week from Scotch Council chairperson, Alex Sloan, one referenced a “whistleblower” coming forward with information relating to Leeds’ time at Geelong Grammar School “concerning matters of proper professional standards and boundaries”.

It is understood an inquiry at the time cleared Mr Leeds of wrongdoing, a position he continues to defend.

Sloan advised members of the school community of the decision to rescind the appointment of Leeds and adding that a new search would commence immediately.

The appointment of a new principal – remarkably only the 10th in Scotch’s 170-year history – is a highly significant decision for a school frequently involving the services of leading recruitment firms. Scotch had appointed Fish & Nankivell which has developed a highly respected practice in the independent school sector. The practitioners involved will be asking deep questions about how such information failed to surface in a timely way.

Given the extensive nature of the search for what is one of the plum jobs in Australian private education, how is it that information of a troubling nature could come to light via a whistleblower only after the appointment had been trumpeted across the independent school landscape in November?

It seems at no time during the appointment process was mention made of the alleged 2018 incident – not to Scotch, not to the recruitment firm and not by those enlisted to provide reference checks. This is astounding given the fundamental right of a prospective employer to know all that can be known about a candidate – especially for a leadership role – and obligations on the candidate to tell all that can be told. These basic standards are all the more important in the context of a school appointment.

Reputation is central to the effective operation of all schools – but especially in the private sector where school fees are astronomical and where choice remains open to parents and students. Any event negatively impacting reputation carries risk and capacity to manage such risk varies considerably between schools.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have made logistics in this appointment more challenging and very likely much of the process was conducted via screen rather than face-to-face. While this in no way excuses the present circumstances, it serves to remind everyone in the sector of the institutional complexities within education – and of the need to go the extra step to ensure outcomes are appropriate and in the interests of students.

Where fault precisely lies in this sorry episode remains hidden from view – but the net result for all parties is awful. While Scotch faces a year without leadership continuity – more time and parents’ money will be spent on a new search and Mr Leeds career has hit a wall.

While serious questions of due diligence remain, Scotch may well be grateful that the whistleblower spoke up prior to Mr Leeds being installed as the school’s new principal mid-2022.

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