'I found a way to give back': Lynne Sedgmore on her 35 years in FE

Stephen Exley

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There are few people in further education who publicly profess a passion for poetry writing, meditation and spirituality.

But, then again, Lynne Sedgmore was not a typical FE leader. Her retirement last week brought to an end 35 years of service in the sector as a teacher, college principal, chief executive of the former Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) and, most recently, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges.

So, does Dr Sedgmore’s zeal for all things spiritual reflect a calm, tranquil style of leadership? “Not calm, no,” she says, her eyes twinkling mischievously. “I’m not very patient, that’s why I have to meditate. I’m feisty. What you see is what you get. I can be scary – not intentionally, but because I’m very, very passionate. I care about the students; I care about what’s right.”

Dr Sedgmore’s own education was traditionally academic: after attending grammar school, she went to university and trained as a schoolteacher. But it was her upbringing in a tough part of Stoke-on-Trent that shaped her views on education.

“I’m here to give back to people; education can give them the way forward to a better life,” Dr Sedgmore says. “That’s my whole heritage. I’m from a sink estate and had factory-worker parents who didn’t really like their jobs. I promised myself two things when I was a kid. I never wanted to worry about my money, because my mum worried about money all the time; we never had enough. And I wanted to love my work. I’m pleased to say, I achieved both of those things.”

After having children, Dr Sedgmore started a part-time job at Cauldon College (now part of Stoke-on-Trent College), working with unemployed young learners. “I loved it straight away,” she says. “It was like I’d come home. I loved working with the towpath lads. It was full of the kind of youngsters I had grown up with. What I found in FE was a way to give back to mates off the estate that I left behind.”

After her first husband got a job in London, Dr Sedgmore moved to the capital in 1982, taking a full-time teaching role at Croydon College on a Youth Training Scheme pilot. After working her way up to become vice-principal, via an 18-month stint at Hackney Community College, Dr Sedgmore’s first principal job was at Guildford College in 1998, a position she loved.

But she had long wanted to take on a role that focused on strategic leadership – an ambition she fulfilled when she became chief executive of CEL in 2004. The job was everything she had hoped for, but it came to an unexpectedly early end in 2008 when CEL was merged with the Quality Improvement Agency to form the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS).

The news hit her hard. “I was so devastated that they had merged my amazingly wonderful organisation that I just left,” she says. “I didn’t want the LSIS job. CEL could have done so much more. I was heartbroken. In my mind, my husband and I were retired. We bought a converted chapel in Somerset.”

Dr Sedgmore’s relationship with her husband John Capper is also firmly rooted in FE. Despite growing up three miles apart in Staffordshire, they only met as colleagues at Croydon College. But any ideas the couple had about a quiet life in the South West were scotched when, two months into Dr Sedgmore’s retirement, she was tempted back – to the helm of the 157 Group.

Becoming an effective leader and dealing with Ofsted
Since then, Dr Sedgmore has become one of the most vocal champions of the sector, unafraid to question the powers that be, from ministers to Ofsted. And Sir Michael Wilshaw’s robust leadership of the inspectorate has given Dr Sedgmore plenty of opportunities. “As a leadership geek, I think the style that Ofsted came in with under the new chief inspector was really [Douglas McGregor’s] Theory X: unless we knock you into shape, you’re not good enough. It doesn’t really work with professionals.

Ofsted is also under evidence-based pressure in a way it never has been before. I think that’s wonderful. Let’s have a really hearty, wholesome debate based on evidence,” she continues. “[Ofsted has] allowed itself to get too closely aligned with political agendas. Longer-term, we could probably do without it.

“But, for now, let’s build maturity in the sector so we can say, genuinely, we don’t need it. I’ve been around long enough to see the positive things Ofsted has contributed over the years. My glass is always half full, if not overflowing, so I’m always prepared to see the good in everything.”

The future of FE colleges
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dr Sedgmore’s analysis of the state of the sector she leaves behind is also a positive one.

“FE has done a fantastic job,” she says. “That’s not to say there aren’t things we can do better and improvements we can make. We’ve been pulled in all sorts of directions through policy changes, and we have learned to chase the money. That flexibility and responsiveness has been a huge strength, but in the long-term that has turned out to be something we’ve been tarred with.

“This is the worst financial scenario we’ve ever faced. It’s crunch time for the nature of what FE colleges are going to be in the future. FE leaders need to find new kinds of business models, new shapes and forms of curriculum, and community partnerships,” she adds.

“More than that, we need to position ourselves as civic leaders in the localities, particularly with the devolution agenda. My worst fear is that politicians really don’t understand FE [and] are pushing it in directions they don’t really understand. The bits of FE that serve the community will just fall off the end. They won’t understand that until it’s become a crisis. It’s a difficult time, but a time of opportunity, with new blood coming through the sector. I think it’s important to know when your time is to step down.”

And Dr Sedgmore certainly has plenty to keep her occupied. As well as her 60th birthday later this year, the self-confessed “temple geek” has a tour of places of worship in Cambodia, Burma and Thailand to look forward to. And on a less happy note, Dr Sedgmore and her husband have the year-long task of rebuilding their dream home in Glastonbury, after it was ravaged by fire in July.

But over three decades in FE, Dr Sedgmore has faced tougher challenges than this. However, the biggest one could be yet to come: will she be able to stay away from FE for longer than two months this time?

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