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Out of nowhere

He's a local authority bureaucrat who's never worked in education but this month he takes charge of the new pound;6bn quango running post-16 learning. He explains his philosophy to Martin Whittaker.

John Harwood's appointment as head of the new Learning and Skills Council came as a surprise to many in further education. It also came as something of a surprise to John Harwood, chief executive of Oxfordshire County Council and chairman of the Heart of England Training and Enterprise Council.

"Let's be honest about this: I'm a local authority bureaucrat and I'm chairman of our local Tec," he says. "I'm not a professional educator and I'm not a teacher and I've never worked in a school. And therefore some people might logically say what's this guy doing? What are we putting him in charge of this for?

"The answer is that this is something which I think is absolutely fundamentally important to the future of our country. It's something where getting the structures right and running those structures is going to be crucial.

"And my track record is about running organisations, and running organisations with a purpose and a passion. And that's certainly a passion I hold in this particular instance."

He was invited to apply for the pound;120,000 post of chief executive - although who invited him he will not say. This week he officially takes the helm of the new body, with a budget of pound;6bn, which from next April will oversee all post-16 education and training outside schools and universities.

So what is his vision? He says: "The real challenge - and the one that really turns me on - is the opportunity to create a step change in the attitude to learning in England.

"There are too many parts of the country where that sort of flame has been extinguished and where too many people think that learning and schools and education institutions are part of a system which oppresses them and are not part of the solution. I think it's very dangerous for those individuals, because the future is not non-learning; the future is going to belong to those people who have high levels of learning and educational attainment."

He believes his organisation, with its network of local skills councils, will be able to deliver this cultural change.

"You've got to unlock local initiative and local determination to solve particular problems locally within that national framework. And that's, I think, a particularly exciting challenge, which hopefully we will get right."

John Harwood, 53, began his carer with the Greater London Council in 1968 and became private secretary to the leader of the Inner London Education Authority in 1973. From 1982 he was chief executive of Lewisham in south-east London before moving to Oxfordshire 11 years ago.

While there, he has also had one foot firmly in the business arena - as well as chairing the local Tec, he has been a director of Oxfordshire Ethnic Minorities Enterprise Development Ltd and a member of the Business Link Accreditation Advisory Board.

Colleagues regard him as affable, approachable, a good leader. "He's well respected and well liked," said an insider. "He's clever, but he does things in a heartfelt way. He seems to have equal interest in business, education and learning and is well respected in the business community."

Neither has Harwood been averse to standing up to the Government. Oxfordshire was one of three local authorities singled out by Labour in 1997 because it was breaking Whitehall-imposed spending limits .

He regards the county - with a highly qualified and academic workforce and its successful local economy - as an exemplar of what he would like to see nationally, breaking down barriers between business and education.

"One of the things I want to do is end this huge anxiety there is about trying to maintain a separation between trade and education. It's one of the recurring themes in this country: that somehow or other, real education doesn't involve trade and that, if trade is involved, then it's training.

"And I'm pleased that there are these business people involved in the local learning and skills councils and the national council because connecting up business with education and education with business is absolutely of fundamental importance."

Harwood has been preparing his ground. "The DFEE make sure I'm never short of reading material. I've also said that I want to be mobile and visible. So even though I haven't yet left Oxfordshire, I've been meeting chairs of the local LSCs. And I'll be visiting colleges. I want to go round and understand what the world looks like, what individual colleges are trying to do and how they see the worldI " He is keen to dispel anxieties at grass roots over next year's changes. "Clearly FE colleges are going to have a very important role in the future - I don't think there's any doubt about that. I can understand there's some anxiety about a new structure and a new funding framework - I think that's understandable. I want to minimise that anxiety."

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