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Comment: From Camelot to corporate - Silver's last golden nuggets

One of further education's star principals, Ruth Silver, retires this week. Alan Thomson discusses the profession's past, present and future with learning's Dame of defiance

One of further education's star principals, Ruth Silver, retires this week. Alan Thomson discusses the profession's past, present and future with learning's Dame of defiance

Ask Dame Ruth Silver about further education and she paints you a Picasso rather than a conventional portrait. Surprising angles, insights and possibilities are laid out and all with a combination of panache, passion and intellect surely unmatched in all of education.

In her presence, further education is no long-suffering Cinderella but rather a tough cookie in charge of her own destiny and working hard to get ahead.

"It is easy to be into the doom and gloom things like the capital fiasco," she says. "I am fed up with capital but I'm excited by the practice in FE.

"It's an adaptive layer in the education system compared to the compulsory nature of schooling and higher education's selectivity. This makes FE pivotal, which is why I adore it. Bascially, if you want a world that doesn't change then don't work in FE."

In her 18 years as principal of Lewisham College, Dame Ruth has seen huge change.

"I feel like I have lived through the most amazing period," she says. "It was a Camelot for FE. I came into it in the 1980s and became a principal as incorporation came in and we were set free from local authorities. I think being a principal is absolutely a different job from when I began. I came in to manage teaching and learning; now it is about running a business. We have to manage pound;40 million or pound;50 million businesses. We have to manage estates, pay attention to management audits and governance, and keep on top of teaching and learning.

"The people coming to work in FE are also more diverse than in the past. We have people coming in perhaps after their third or second jobs in their late twenties. They are also more diverse in terms of their expertise - people who are in IT, from business, nurses, etc. It is a big challenge to us to help everyone belong. It is a principal's primary task to win the hearts of new colleagues."

The shape of further education's leadership has also undergone considerable change.

"There is a fabulous group of principals coming up," she says. "They are less ideological than we were but they are preoccupied by the standards of excellence.

"There are fewer from industry now. We have principals who are financial experts and fewer who used to work in factories and went to night school. There are many good aspects to that."

The expertise that the new breed of principal and senior manager brings to the table is perhaps appropriate given the more business-like nature of a principal's role. But something worries Dame Ruth.

"Principals should only ever be people who have been involved with learning," she says. "It is the love of learning that helps you keep on going. If you do not have that love of learning you may not stay long.

"FE should not be in the hands of business people, it should be in the hands of people who love learning."

Dame Ruth's words are likely to please those who fear that further education is in thrall to a business culture that is essentially alien to education. But she is under no illusions that further education faces some very real business challenges.

"When I came into FE I came in at a time of high unemployment and I am leaving it at a time of high unemployment," she says. "There is a sense of deja vu.

"I think those principals that have done this stuff before recognise the terrain. If I have a concern it is about the newer principals that have only lived through the prosperous times. And it is up to us to tell them about the depth of change they face."

And the challenges do not stop there. No conversation with any principal of an English college these days can avoid the topic of capital funding and the disastrous mishandling of the bidding process by the Learning and Skills Council.

"Why is the sector so quiet about the money that's being taken away from us on capital?" she says. "In one way the dignity of the sector is a joy for me. Other people who would not have noticed us in the past are outraged for us. More politicians seem to understand us now. MPs understand what's happened to their local colleges.

"But how long will the dignity last? I hope it won't last too long.

"We have to make sure it is clear to the new department that it was not the FE system that failed. We have not failed to deliver but have been failed by others. And why hasn't there been an apology?

"The legacy of the capital fiasco is risk. And the risks are that excellence suffers and the students and communities lose confidence in us. Colleges simply do not have the money that they did before.

"It is hard to get over the bruise of the capital situation. But, of course, something else will come up in its place."

Dame Ruth's vision for the sector is far reaching. She sees colleges as hubs of learning, serving local needs and providing open access to people from all walks of life and every learning stage from age 14 onwards. She is a director of the Baker-Dearing Trust, which aims to set up 10 technical colleges, attached to universities, but catering for 14- to 19- year-olds.

"We are part of a system, not a sector in our own right," she says. "One of the biggest pieces of hubris has been the idea that we are a national sector. We are the local jewel.

"I think the shape we are in is restricting us. The structure and shape of FE needs to change as radically as localities need us to change. It is all about the local fit."

Dame Ruth believes the changes to further-education structure and funding from next year are a challenge. But adaptation is the lifeblood of further education and so such change offers opportunity as well as risk.

"There are too many unknowns at the moment," she says. "Machinery of government changes, new inspection regimes, new entitlements, diplomas. But is this not the most exciting time for the sector to catch the flakes and place them strategically? This is the time for the sector to push things forward. Once things have settled they will be harder to shift."

Dame Ruth will continue to drive the agenda in further education as chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS). If successful, its ambitious agenda to increase the capacity of further education to improve its own standards paves the way for self-regulation and a step-change in status.

"We know how difficult times are and we should proceed with a passion because the temptation is to proceed with caution," she says. "What we do now is so very significant."

It almost sounds as though her work as principal is unfinished. Is she leaving too soon?

"I decided a year ago, but if I had left then I would have left a very different sector," she says. "But I had the honour of staying long enough for the difficulties to emerge so people cannot blame new people coming in for what happened."

Yet while Dame Ruth may have hung tough till the end, preparing the ground for her successor Maxine Room, who started this week, her retirement is understandably an emotional wrench.

"When I get upset and weepy at the thought of leaving it is when I'm in an empty corridor," she says. "It reminds me that I will miss touching tomorrow and being refuelled by the aspirations and determination of the students. But will I miss things like the audit community? No.

"My soul is calling me somewhere else. The arts are the last great place of defiance in society and, given that I was born with a great streak of defiance in me, that's where I'm drawn to."

Dame Ruth is, among many other things, still involved with music and dance institute Trinity Laban, where she was on the board and helped oversee the 2005 merger of Trinity College of Music and Laban school of dance.

Fortunately, further education will not lose her wisdom, insight and humanity altogether as she continues in her role at LSIS and as a trustee of the vocational learning foundation Edge.

"People should live their lives through choice, not fate," she says. "That's a Lewisham phrase. And I am completely independent. No one owns me. But I can tell you, there is no finer place to work than FE."

A glittering career

2006: Appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire

2003: Awarded visiting professorship, London South Bank University

1991: Became principal of Lewisham College

1986-1991: Vice principal and acting principal of Newham Community College

1983-1986: Head of faculty at Southwark College

1980-1982: Civil servant: policy principal in youth development team at Manpower Services Commission, developing the Youth Training Scheme

1977-1980: Inner London Education Authority inspectorate

1975-1977: BBC broadcaster and author in Community Youth Developments.

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