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Ex-plumber taps into top job

As the man at the helm of the Institute for Learning (IfL), Lee Davies makes sure he keep his hand in as a lecturer when he can.

The chief executive of the new professional body set up by the Government makes no secret of the fact that he has thrown his hat in the ring for the job when it becomes permanent later this year.

It will surely be a position to test the public relations skills of whoever takes it. As well as representing the interests of members, IfL will also have a disciplinary role, with the ability to stop them from teaching as the ultimate sanction.

As a former plumber who entered FE by teaching his trade at college, Mr Davies, 41, believes he can well understand the aspirations of members.

"If I was a teacher and looking at the Institute for Learning," he said, "I would find it very difficult to extend it any credibility if the person leading it didn't have intimate knowledge of what teaching and learning is about.

"They don't have to be a current teacher, but they need to be prepared to roll up their sleeves."

As a plumber in the 1980s, Mr Davies took a pay cut of about pound;1,000 - 10 per cent of his salary - to teach. He estimates making the same change today would involve giving up nearly pound;50,000 as a plumber for pound;25,000 as a lecturer.

Mr Davies argues that the professionalisation of FE will in itself attract people by conferring greater status on the job.

He also said that closing the pay gap with schools - which the unions would like to see - is the wrong target. Colleges will have to pay salaries that are attractive enough to people coming from industry. To do that, lecturers may need to be paid substantially more than their colleagues in schools.

As a teenager, Mr Davies had become disillusioned with school. At 15, he focused his efforts on earning cash in labouring jobs, missing exams and leaving with just a handful of the qualifications he had been expected to pass. He eventually managed to secure an apprenticeship as a plumber with Portsmouth city council, following his father's trade. He found his FE tutors inspirational. "I can track back wanting to teach from that moment of revelation," he said.

But it was only a chance meeting with his former lecturers a few years later that gave him the impetus to begin his new career. They told him there was a vacancy to teach evening classes, and he seized the chance.

Mr Davies flourished in the job and rose to take a series of management positions before leaving for a regional management post with the Workers' Educational Association and eventually establishing the IfL.

There, he has helped to draw up the professional standards which will be expected of lecturers, such as the requirement to do at least 30 hours a year of continuous professional development.

Lecturers who do not meet the standards will face a tribunal of IfL members and lay people and could be barred from teaching.

But Mr Davies feels maintaining standards will help to raise the professional status of lecturers in a way which will help to end FE's sense of being the Cinderella of the education system. "It's about the protection of the profession," he said.

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