'I tell my staff: Learn how to sparkle'

Tes FE Awards 2019 leader of the year Paul Phillips talks tough choices, transforming Weston College and the magic of FE

Tes FE leader of the year Paul Phillips: "I tell my staff: learn how to sparkle"

The Tes FE Awards 2020 are now open for entries. The awards are the biggest celebration of FE and skills of the year, bringing together inspirational teachers, leaders, colleges and providers, as well as those working behind the scenes across the UK. The deadline for entering is midnight on Friday 15 November. Click here to enter.

Paul Phillips was in the garden with his two sons when his neighbour popped her head over the fence to introduce herself. Phillips and his family had just moved to the area, and the neighbour asked him what he did for a living. He kept it vague, telling her that he worked in education.

She laughed and said to him: “Well, whatever you do, don’t send the boys to that Weston College!”

Phillips, unbeknownst to her, had started at the college a few days before, as principal and chief executive. 

But then, he’s never been a man to shy away from a challenge. 


Paul Phillips wins at Tes FE Awards 2019

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Phillips grew up in Chepstow in South Wales. His dad was a dental technologist, his mum a housewife. His father got a job at the then-new University Hospital of Wales and the family moved to in Cardiff. 

While studying at a local college, Phillips became manager of a hotel, and also worked at a local club, the Mont Morence. He juggled all three roles to help the family financially: his father was ill at the time. He says he’s always been hard-working, and entrepreneurial, too. 

Mastering his trade

Though a born salesman, Phillips says he wasn’t overly academic. “I wasn’t the greatest student in school,” he admits. “The headteacher wrote on my report that my attendance could be better, but, in the end, my mother was quite proud because she said, ‘He could sell sand to the Arabs.’” 

Nonetheless, he gained a scholarship to Cardiff University, where he studied maths, economics, statistics and IT. After university, Phillips worked on computer-aided command systems, on bone marrow research specialising in medical statistics and at a pharmaceutical company doing statistical quality control. So how did he discover the world of FE?

He was asked to fill in for a teacher who was ill at a local adult education centre in Cardiff and that was that: Phillips got the bug. Teaching maths at a secondary school in Newport followed and, after two years, a maths lecturer position came up at Pontypool College. Phillips took the leap and hasn’t looked back.

“I loved what FE gave me. I loved the fact that I could work with people from a wide range of disciplines. I worked with people who were from that valley area. I learned a lot about the valley culture,” he says.

He remembers one girl in his A-level maths class. He told her mum that she’d go far, and that he was going to try and get her into Cardiff University, which was 30 miles from their home. A week later, the mum sent him a letter asking if he could find somewhere closer to home. “It brought it home to me, the limited horizons you often see in certain areas. But now that girl has a top job in the NHS,”  Phillips says. 

He became head of department at Pontypool, and then moved across to Ebbw Vale College as assistant principal. The college was in decline, and needed massive restructuring. Working with the principal at the time, he turned the college around. 

Phillips moved on to be the director of a neighbouring institution: Newport College. Around the same time, another college in the area, Gwent College, collapsed. 

Gwent College Group was formed as a result, and Phillips was appointed vice-principal, with five colleges to oversee.  

“Working across five colleges, I learned my trade. I was involved in the restructure, major new building projects. This was where I got to know about what you could achieve, working with Estyn [the Welsh equivalent to Ofsted], and dealing with the issue of management of change,” he says.

“I was really happy in that role, but I did have this urge in me: could I do it myself? Could I lead an institution?”

In 2001 Phillips became principal of Weston College of Further Education – a relatively small college turning over just £8 million. He says finances were dire, and quality was dire. “If I’m honest, in my naivety, I didn’t realise the extent of it until I got into the job. I had a major rude awakening,”  he says. “There was no cash because of the deficit position of the college, no opportunity to engage. But at the same time I felt it couldn’t go any lower.”

Phillips worked with the governors, and explained that the college needed a transformation. He concentrated on unitising the curriculum: the college offer became wider and the concept of a family of schools was introduced to ensure that students fed in to Weston. He also removed all of the college’s managers bar one. “It created me huge heartache. The local media had a field day, as did the trade unions. But I had to bring in new blood and I had to bring in a change process. The first two years were horrendous, to be honest,” he admits.

Paul Phillips, Tes FE awards

Excellence in SEND support

When first moving to Weston, he stayed in a bed and breakfast opposite the college so he could observe it. “Some nights, I’d go back into my room with the wood-chipped wallpaper and the plastic daffodils – it was a typical seaside B and B –and think to myself, ‘What the hell have I done?’

“But I persevered and bought in some really good people and started to develop the institution,” Phillips says.

And what a transformation. The college turnover has increased from under £8 million when he started to £63 million in 2016-17. More than a decade ago, it was rated “good” by inspectors, with “outstanding” provision in SEND education. At that point, Phillips recalls feeling like he had turned the corner. “Staff suddenly believed in themselves,” he says. “That was the turning point.

“We’ve had blips in the years since when funding has got a bit tricky, but I’ve got a cohort of staff who are second to none. And a talent within them from an entrepreneurial point which is quite something.”

It’s that quality of SEND education that Phillips says he is most proud of. “Seeing learners with learning difficulties and disabilities progress, achieve a qualification and move into sustainable housing and employment. If you said to me, ‘What’s the best thing?’, that’s it for me.

“I remember an elective mute coming to the college, and seeing the SEND staff through Monty Python films completely transforming him, so he could communicate and move into a career. That’s the magical sparkle. I say to my staff, ‘Learn to sparkle’,” he says. 

Phillips is no stranger to sparkling himself. The college was rated “outstanding” by Ofsted in 2013. He has been recognised by Bath Spa University as an honorary doctor of letters, and the University of the West of England gave him a doctorate in education. He is also one of very few to be made a national leader of further education and is on the FE commissioner’s advisory board. And then there’s the small matter of an OBE, a CBE and, of course, being named FE leader of the year at the Tes FE Awards 2019.

Being on the advisory board and being named a national leader of FE has given him greater exposure to the powers that be. 

“I’ve now got a real insight into what’s going on with FE generally. I can work with the FE commissioner, with the DfE, the ESFA and others, and get directly involved in helping colleges,” he says.

“What the FE commissioner is trying to achieve, with others, is raising that profile of FE and trying to make the DfE understand the significant contribution that FE makes.”

Phillips’ own contribution to FE is significant. He says that receiving his OBE in 2011 was an absolute shock – although the envelope from the palace sat unopened on his pile of post for a while.

“I thought it was a tax bill from HMRC,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t rush to open it. When I did open it, I was thrilled – shocked, but absolutely thrilled. It meant a lot to me. I felt at the time, ‘Perhaps I am making a difference.” Sometimes in FE you can go on for weeks wondering if you’re really creating change or doing the right thing. I was proud to achieve it, I was proud to tell my late mother, and take the family to the palace.”

He says that when he met the Queen she had heard about the expansion of the college, and how things had changed.

And then in 2017, when he received a CBE for his work in the local community, he met the Prince of Wales. The Prince, he says, was very keen to hear what the college was doing on adult education and what FE could contribute to community education. 

But the award that meant the most, Phillips says, was FE Leader of the Year at the Tes FE Awards. “It’s an award from the sector itself. I didn’t underestimate that. I didn’t expect to achieve it – I was on cloud nine all night,” he says. “It brought it home to me how FE is a real culture and community. As I walked up to get the award and as I walked back, I saw so many people I’d worked with over the years, and I glowed that night.

“When I came home on the train, I thought about how important it was for me. Not in a selfish way. I think I’ve spent most of my life in FE, and it was just an award that I thought, ‘Wow.’” 

 

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