New chief turns the rhetoric into reality

"Courses 'r' us" was the stirring soundbite uttered by Chris Hughes to his staff when his college became independent in 1993.

The then principal of Gateshead College continued: "This morning we are an independent corporation, we must be much more commercial, the world has changed."

Certainly Chris Hughes believes in getting straight down to business. He took over as chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency this month and within three days announced a blueprint for the future of the senior management team.

Conscious that FEDA has an image problem, he is already promoting it as the learning development agency. "We have to set out our stall on lifelong learning, and turn the rhetoric into reality. We have to ask ourselves, 'How do we make it happen?'.

"We cannot just put an ad on the back of a bus and assume that everyone will flock in. We have to convert people to learning, persuade people of the benefits. There is no quick fix. Lifelong learning for all is the public policy position and we have got to reach learners one at a time."

Mr Hughes, 53, has an impressive pedigree. He served as a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Education and Employment Select Committee and has worked on national further education policy for the past 10 years. He was a member of the Association of College's Impact and Awareness Committee which has been trying to raise the profile of further education.

He went to grammar school in Liverpool and then took an economics degree at the University of Manchester. He was part of the first intake of students for the new Postgraduate Diploma in Further Education, which he took at Leicester University.

He then became a Pounds 10 migrant and gained his first teaching job at a Sydney high school. The Australian officials said he could make the journey by air or sea and he chose the latter. "So I ended up joining a Women's Weekly cruise, and spent four-and-a-half weeks with 450 mature women." After three years he returned for a holiday and stayed. He was appointed principal of Gateshead in 1990.

He is now part of a small group of people from the North-east - David Melville at the funding council, Jacqui Henderson at TEC National Council, Anne Wright at the University for Industry - all heading up national bodies.

Mr Hughes sees FE as being vital to enable a community to "grow" its skills so it can control its economic destiny. "When capital can move it is the quality of people's skills that is important."

He sees the delivery of quality as one of the greatest challenges since incorporation. "Quality and standards should not be less important just because someone has reached the age of 16 and decided to go to their local FE college rather than stay on at school.

"Colleges have a tremendous record of opening up education and training to all sections of the community. Colleges argue that it would be a great shame if, in the future, they were judged by their retention and achievement levels alone.

"One of the challenges for government as it pushes forward quality improvement in further education will be to improve retention and achievement without restricting access to education and training. Any college achieving 100 per cent retention should be asked some serious questions about its entry policy, " he said.

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