10 questions with…AQA chief Colin Hughes

As part of our new regular interview series, the chief executive of awarding body AQA settles into the Tes hot seat
1st January 2021, 12:05am
Colin Hughes, Chief Executive Of Aqa
Catherine Lough


10 questions with…AQA chief Colin Hughes


Colin Hughes was appointed chief executive of the UK's largest GCSE and A-level exam board, AQA, in February 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was about to present the exams sector with its biggest ever challenge. The former journalist - he was education editor of three national newspapers - has already been candid about the fact that there are no easy solutions to the 2021 exams conundrum. 

Was he just as forthcoming with his answers to Tes' 10 questions, designed to show you the person behind the professional profile? Let's find out …


1. Who was your most memorable teacher and why?

I went to secondary school in the early 1970s at a very large, very liberal comprehensive. Teachers wore kaftans. It wasn't particularly strong on discipline, it was quite a rough school, but there were teachers who realised that it was quite a difficult place for academically able students to make progress and kind of looked after me. 

I don't think there is one specific individual [teacher who is most memorable for me], but I remember vividly three English teachers whom I would say actually got me through comprehensive school, who were immensely enthusiastic about the subject that I eventually went to study at university.

2. What were the best and worst things about your time at school? 

The worst is very easy: I was quite badly bullied [at secondary school]. I essentially absented myself from school for large chunks of time and went away and effectively taught myself. [The school] was attached to a teacher training college and I just used to go to the college library and read. So, actually, by the time I got to the sixth form, I was very well-read, but not according to any kind of curriculum anybody at the school would have recognised.

They did look after me. Many of my teachers said, "Look, you're probably better off not coming to some of these lessons and just going to the library". And it was that posture that enabled me to get into the University of Oxford. I went from a school where nobody had been to Oxford before, or to Cambridge. That would not have happened if I hadn't been allowed to plough my own furrow.

3. Why do you work in education?

I grew up with it. My father would have called himself a Rab Butler Tory, what you would think of as the Left of the Conservative Party (I'm not, by the way). He was the chairman of Berkshire education council for 17 years, so he actually comprehensivised Berkshire. 

So, education politics was my bread and butter; I grew up with it, it's always been my life.

I've been the education editor of three national newspapers: The Times, The Independent and The Guardian. I've been involved in education policy and practice all the way through. But I haven't had a career as a teacher at all at any stage.

4. What are you most proud of in your career and what's your biggest regret?

If I had to have one thing I'm proud of, it's that in all the roles that I have had, I've enabled others to realise what they're brilliant at and that's what I really, really like doing. 

When you start getting to run things at quite a young age - I became the executive editor of The Independent at the age of 34 - what's really satisfying is not the things you do yourself but how you enable others to realise what they can do. 

That's why [running] an exam board at this stage in life is quite appealing, because that's essentially what it's all about.

But that's a very cute response, isn't it? If you were to press me, I think being one of the people who launched The Independent, [which] succeeded and at one point overtook The Times in circulation, [would be what I'm proudest of]. That was not only extremely exciting, but we changed journalism for a time. 

I am also a non-exec director of an Indian company that runs a small chain of immensely successful schools in India that I helped launch and help to run, which I do genuinely feel very proud of. We seriously change lives. It's not wholly selective, so we take in quite a lot of poor students and give them an education they couldn't possibly have had in any other way, so that's quite thrilling.

Regrets? I have none. 


5. Who would be your colleagues in your perfect school staffroom?

I know who I'd want to have around me, who I would trust utterly, and that would be my four adult children. They cover the entire range of everything that matters. They've got everything - science, history, computing, medicine. I'd have literally the entire gamut of what I needed to do in school in my own family.  

I think we'd make a pretty good staffroom actually, my kids and I. I think I'd drive them completely barking, but it would be great for me.

6. What are the best and worst aspects of our schools system today?

The best thing about the education system in the United Kingdom is that we have an astonishingly committed cadre of teachers - amazingly so, really.

Even when teachers are not happy about aspects of policy, they just focus on getting the right thing done in schools. The responsiveness of the education system to doing the best it can, usually in quite trying circumstances, is marvellous. My partner is a primary school teacher; I see the degree of overload that can often be imposed on teachers. 

The worst thing about the system is the degree to which we look after the development of teachers once they're in the classroom. Do we really spend enough time constantly upgrading the skills of teachers? We say we do, but I'm not convinced we do as much as we should. 

7. Your own teachers aside, who in education has influenced you the most?

There are so many [influences], in various ways. I used to work quite closely with David Blunkett when I was a journalist - I think he was very interesting. My first ever interview as a journalist on The Times was with Sir Keith Joseph, whom everybody regarded as a complete right-wing horror. But actually, he really understood what the problem was with state schools - he really got it. 

So, it doesn't really matter to me where people come from on the political spectrum or indeed on the educational spectrum, whether they're traditionalists or progressives. I'm much more interested in what the particular thing is that they've grasped. 

But if you ask me to pick one individual, it would be my father, because he influenced me more than anything. He deeply believed that schools were our social anchor, that everything radiates out from schools. We all go to them, pretty much all of us. They are an absolute epicentre of our social meaning and our sense of what our society is; they're the place where, perhaps these days, you really encounter a whole society in one place and live together as genuine equals. 

So, I guess the thing I learned from him was the power and importance of that, that a well-run school can be a tremendous crucible for society as a whole.

8. If you became education secretary tomorrow, what would be the first thing you would do?

It would be about raising the status of teachers - what can I do to raise the status of teachers and enable teachers to have the time to grow and develop to be the best that they possibly can be? 

Because actually, that's what they all want: they want to do the job to the utmost of their ability, and so they want to be freed and developed to be able to do that. I'd be totally focused on teaching quality. 

9. What will our schools be like in 30 years? 

Not as different as people think they might be. There's this kind of routine thing when you go to conferences, and people are asked to talk about the future of learning and so on and so forth …Very often they start by showing you a picture of a Victorian schoolroom and then a modern schoolroom and say, "Look how little has changed". 

Well, my usual feeling is, actually, rather a lot changed. But what they mean is that the paradigm hasn't changed, people sitting at desks and somebody standing up, telling them things. 

Do I think that suddenly we jump into a new media way of teaching and learning? No. In my previous life, publishing education textbooks, people would lament: "Why is it that only 15 per cent of time (for the sake of argument) in UK schools is spent using digital resources to learn?' And my answer to that would be: maybe that's the right proportion; maybe that is, in fact, the right balance. 

My experience in all of my media life is that increased access to digital and being able to work out how to use digital usually enhances people's demands for face-to-face, not the other way around.

10. What one person do you think has made the most difference to our schools in the past 12 months?

I don't think I can answer that because everything is totally overshadowed by the pandemic cloud. The truth is that swathes of human beings, particularly those in key professions like health or education, have just done some amazing stuff this year and will go on doing it next year. I guess it's so twee to say this, but the real answer to your question is that those [key workers] are the people who have made a difference. They've just kept things running and, wow, that's quite something to have done, isn't it?

Interview by Tes reporter Catherine Lough

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