Meet Sue Pember, lead 'activist' for adult education

Throughout her career, Sue Pember has been at the chalkface of adult education. Now, she's shouting on its behalf from the sidelines as director of policy at Holex

Kate Parker

Adult education activist, Sue Pember profile

Most of us have defining moments from primary school that influence our adult lives. For Sue Pember, it was when she was summoned to the headteacher’s office over “a lack of ambition”. 

Her class had been asked what they wanted to do when they grew up – and Pember, who was already a keen swimmer, dreamed of competing in the Olympics. But her family was not well off, and she knew that to fund the training she’d have to get a part-time job. The job, she'd decided, would be in hairdressing. Her headteacher, however, wasn’t impressed. 

“He told me my ambition wasn't great enough; it was the hairdresser bit that really got to him. So anyway, I knuckled down and rewrote it,” she says. “And I thought, well, he can't dismiss it if I say I want to be a teacher because that's what he does. And in a way, it planted the idea of teaching and, in the end, I stuck with it.” 

Her dreams of being an Olympic swimmer may have never come to fruition, but she’s certainly a champion, in every sense of the word, for adult education. 

Pember has spent decades teaching adults and working in local authorities and government, writing policy that’s engaged and supported lifelong learning. Today, she’s the director of policy for Holex, a membership organisation for adult education providers. 

News: Adult education needs a revolution, say MPs

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Listen: The impact of education on adults 

Trading in Olympic dreams for teaching

Pember grew up in Pontypridd, Wales – “my claim to fame is that’s where Tom Jones came from,” she laughs – and says her background was one where money was scarce. Her father was a disabled, unemployed miner, and her mother worked in factories and often had several jobs at one time. Her grandmother lived with the family of three, and had a very strong influence on Pember as a child: “The strong woman is in the Welsh culture, and that comes out in how I’ve lived my life,” she says. 

Most of Pember’s childhood was spent training and competing for her county as a swimmer, but at the age of 17, it became clear that the Olympic dream wouldn’t become a reality. She had already trained as a swimming teacher and loved it – and in line with her plan from primary school, she went to Glamorgan Training College in Barry to train as a geography and textiles teacher. 

The subjects were not Pember’s first choice; she’d originally wanted to train in outdoor education, but that particular course was withdrawn. On her first day at college, her class were told that they needed to choose a second subject to specialise in to extend the course to four years, and therefore gain the degree that was due to be introduced in the fourth year. Pember already had experience in textiles, having worked in factories part-time as a teenager. 

By the end of her degree, that skill and passion for textiles won out, and Pember got her first job teaching fashion at Redbridge College in London. 

“I remember my first class; they were brilliant. I walked in, I was just 21 and from Wales, and the college was in the East End of London. All my students came from either East Ham, Barking or Shoreditch and they were all streetwise,” she says.

“I remember taking them to the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum] for a visit, and them telling me 'Miss, put your purse away', 'Miss, don’t do this', 'Miss, don’t give that guy eye contact'. It was them taking care of me.”

At Redbridge, Pember honed her teaching skills while also putting skills she’d gained from her years working in a factory to good use with her apprenticeship students. Pember excelled at making links with employers and loved going to visit the students in the manufacturing workplaces. 

“Personally, I didn't think it was unusual that I was just as comfortable in a factory as I was in the classroom, but as I went through my career, I realised not everybody felt like that. There were some teachers who felt really uncomfortable about making those contacts with work, and they just needed help to do it,” she says.

Sue Pember

Putting employers at the heart of FE

After six years at Redbridge, Pember moved on to get a deputy head of department job at Southgate College. Three years into the role, she had her first experience of working in a local authority. She was hired as a further education coordinator and says it was the “greatest privilege”, twinning what employers wanted with what colleges could offer. 

When colleges were moved from local authority control, Pember had a decision to make: did she become a schools officer in the local authority, or did she go back into colleges? The latter won out, and she became principal of Canterbury College aged just 35. “[Former principal of Milton Keynes College] Ann Limb and I used to quarrel over who was the youngest principal in the country,” she laughs. 

Pember says she’s proud of what she achieved at Canterbury, particularly when it comes to the links with the business community. Every vocational area had a steering board of employers who signed off the provision – and she says while it was a tall order for businesses to begin with, it really brought the college and industry together as one. 

In 1997, there was a national push to get more adults into education, while at Canterbury, Pember already looked after 4,000 adult learners. The college had an initiative that had every adult who came to the college have a diagnostic English assessment; then, if needed, adult literacy was added to their timetable. The college secured funding to implement that approach in Kent. 

“There was demand for it, but people wouldn’t knock on the door and say 'my literacy is really poor'. But they would knock on the door and say 'can I do this catering course', or 'can I come and do fabrication', or 'can I do a bit of welding', so we linked it on for adults,” she says. 

“Around it, we produced good-practice materials for every lecturer, and we moved it down into young people as well, so every lecturer was being trained to spot if somebody had a literacy issue or a numeracy issue.”

The Skills for Life strategy

As well as changing the lives of those who gained those crucial skills, Pember says the project changed her life, too. She’d been at the college for six years and was feeling ready for a new challenge. When the Department for Education advertised a role leading the Skills for Life Unit, Pember was inspired. 

And so, in the summer of 2000, from being a college principal, Pember became a civil servant. “It was certainly interesting,” she laughs. This year, the Skills for Life strategy Pember led is 20 years old. The legacy of that strategy still exists today, she says. 

“It was one of the biggest major social interventions ever tried. We had large numbers we were trying to get to, we were managed by the prime minister's delivery unit, we were learning a lot about new strategies to engage lots of people,” she says. 

“In the first 10 years of the strategy, it re-educated or reskilled 14 million people, and 8 million of them went up a level and got a new qualification out of it. I think people forget that we've come a long way. And yes, the money could probably be doubled; yes, we need to be more targeted now; and yes, we need some high-level support – but we got that in the White Paper last month.” 

Pember spent a total 13 years in the Civil Service – and also covered post-16 and post-18 funding, as well as apprenticeships. 

“This is where endurance swimming comes in – I could have gone on forever. But I did feel it was time to move on. Whether people like the levy or not, that was an incredible accomplishment and to be in on that at the start was great. I’d also overseen the austerity measures, and that was hard. We safeguarded certain things, but not everything. And in a way, when I put that together, it was time to go,” she says. 

Pember had a bit of breather – “Some people said, 'oh, you retired from the Civil Service', but that's not quite how I saw it” – but quite quickly notched up a number of roles working in Brazil, Northern Ireland and Wales, supporting providers who wanted to “revamp” what they were already doing. 

But throughout all of that, in the back of her mind, she was concerned adult education didn’t have a voice and was determined to do something about that. 

When Julian Gravatt from the Association of Colleges sent Pember the job advert from Holex and told her it was a great fit, she was apprehensive at first. But actually, she says, he was “dead right”. 

“I’m in my fifth year now and I have never, ever worked with a group of practitioners who are so wedded to and passionate in the sector. They are the best. They've just got the learner at the forefront of their mind, and after the learner, it’s about their staff. And that's how they make it all work. And between them, they educate nearly 500,000 students a year,” she says. 

While adult education providers, like the rest of the sector, have offered a blended approach to learning, teachers are keen to get back to teaching face-to-face as soon as possible, she says. 

Giving adult educators a voice

“You can’t get that light-bulb moment online. You learn best when you are pushing each other as a class of students, and when the teacher is saying something that really touches on a chord with you, and you begin to understand the concept and you move on intellectually. I don't get to feel that you can do all that online, and you don't have the same creativity. My lot are itching to get back now. They'd go back tomorrow, if they could,” she says.  

But in order for them to go back successful, there are things the sector needs from the government – things Pember says she’s been asking for twice a month since last year.  

“We need reassurance about the funding for September. Even if we didn't have Covid, adult education would have been this growth industry anyway, because we've got artificial intelligence coming along, the green industries coming along, all of us have got to have the mindset to retrain,” she says. 

“We've got a lot of work to do if we're going to stay up there as a really productive nation. The adult education world will grow, I know it will, but making sure that we've got an infrastructure to allow it to grow and expand. This is the case going forward now.”

It’s been a busy year – and things won’t be slowing down any time soon for adult education or Pember. And actually, that’s just how she likes it.

“My role at Holex was supposed to be part time, but we keep taking on more projects. And to be honest, what else is there to do? It’s my Covid activity – other people do jigsaws, I just write another document. I don't know what I would have done if I wasn’t working. I would have hated the past 18 months. I'm never going to retire from work full time, I’m always busy,” she says. 

Keeping busy has included taking part in conferences and webinars across the sector – and a particular talk recently made Pember reflect on her own personal brand. 

“On one talk, when the woman introduced me, she said, 'Sue is an activist for adult education',” she says. “I thought, wow, I can cope with that. I’m not just an advocate, I'm an activist. That's my new brand.” 

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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