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Principal goes back to community cohesion

Venerated Liverpool college leader steps down after 17 years

Wally Brown - one of the country's longest-serving and best known principals - is to step down after 17 years at the helm of Liverpool Community College.

Mr Brown started out as an engineering apprentice at English Electric in the city before moving on to management roles in the company. But it was his interest in community work which ultimately led to his career in further education.

While black principals were not uncommon during the days when local education authorities were in charge, it has been rare for members of any ethnic minority to occupy the post since the colleges became independent corporations in 1993.

Mr Brown was born in Toxteth, a deprived area of Liverpool, his father having settled in England after arriving from West Africa as a seaman. He trained in youth work at Manchester University and became active in the community, getting involved in negotiations about regeneration with Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, following the Toxteth riots of 1982. He went on to become a youth services and adult education manager in Manchester, where he met David Gibson, the City College principal who was later to become chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

"I was really interested in the interface between youth work and FE," said Mr Brown, "and I learned a lot from David Gibson."

Mr Brown was working in Lambeth, south London, as principal of the Adult Education Institute when, in 1991, the opportunity arose to return to Liverpool to be the first principal of a new college.

Liverpool Community College had been formed by the merger of four institutions on 16 sites across the city. Concentrated into one college on six, it went on to enjoy improved student recruitment and retention and an "outstanding" rating from Ofsted, offering a wide range of further education courses.

"We had some of the worst buildings in the sector and now we have some of the best," Mr Brown said. "People who work in this college tend to have high levels of commitment to the organisation. Of 20 top managers, only one or two have been here for fewer than 20 years."

In recent years, as the Government has put increasing emphasis on the "demand-led" approach, he feels FE has been made to take more than its share of responsibility for increasing the skills of the workforce.

He said: "I can understand the desire to do something about skills shortages, but I'm not always sure the strategies are correct. If we take apprenticeships as an example, we can do as many of these as there are places with employers. It is employers who are holding up apprenticeships, not colleges.

"When I went to FE college, the college just did apprenticeship training - but that was in the days when employers paid a levy. The company I worked for was taking on 150 of us each year. But we have seen the decline of manufacturing and now the smaller companies don't have the resources to train."

As government policies change, he regards colleges as continuing to provide a stabilising influence.

The Learning and Skills Council, formed in 2001, describes its "single goal" as "to improve the skills of England's young people and adults to ensure we have a workforce of world-class standard."

Mr Brown, whose own early career was rooted in social cohesion, believes the purpose of colleges will always go further.

"There is a debate about what education should be for," he said. "I think it is right that colleges should meet the needs of employers, but that is not all it should be about."

Mr Brown, who was awarded the CBE in 2001 for services to further education, plans to return to his roots and work in a voluntary capacity in Toxteth and the wider city.

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