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Putting fruit back on the applecart

The learning and skills chief in the newly-formed East Midlands region is having a few tough lessons in how to cope in a crisis. Joe Clancy reports

Even before he settled into his seat as the new regional director of the Learning and Skills Council, David Hughes found himself embroiled in a series in a series of rows that had to be resolved.

An explosive report which accused some senior managers in his region of bullying and intimidating their employees left him short on comfort.

Within weeks of his appointment, he found himself dealing with departures of senior staff and upheaval that forced him to move jobs and offices.

As if that wasn't enough to deal with, another potentially damaging report into the resignation of the principal of a large college has been published this week.

But Mr Hughes is doing all he can to remain unfazed by the turmoil erupting in the East Midlands. He is hoping that with the departure of the executive director of Nottinghamshire LSC along with his deputy, the dust will soon begin to settle.

"There is no reason for us to think that anybody else needs to leave," he said.

On account of this turmoil, he is moving to Nottingham to take direct charge there for four to six months, so a replacement will have to be found to run Derbyshire LSC during his absence.

These issues, he admits, are distracting him from his main task of improving further education in the five counties that make up the East Midlands: Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire.

"My job would have been easier if this hadn't flared up - there is no doubt about that," he said.

"Clearly, staff are going through pain and it does distract us from getting on with the job.

"We've got a big job to do and I want to focus on what is important - getting more people learning, more people achieving, and developing skills for the economy to make for a more productive East Midlands. It is a rocky road, but we will get there."

As regional director and executive director of Nottingham, one of his top priorities will be the reorganisation of the college structure in Nottingham. A six-week consultation period has just begun on this issue, and this also threatens discord.

Last month, the LSC endorsed a two-college system for the city involving the merger of South Nottingham, People's, and Broxtowe colleges. But two of these colleges - South Nottingham and People's - want to merge but exclude Broxtowe.

"I am keen to find out from the colleges and the LSC what the issues are and that the process doesn't get stalled," said Mr Hughes. "It is clearly a strategic issue for the LSC."

So, what of the complex educational issues facing the region, which is the third-largest in terms of area yet has the second-smallest population?

A key issue for Mr Hughes is the 14-19 agenda.

"The vision is to see young people as members of a broad learning community as well as a school or college community," he said.

Two projects underway in Derbyshire offer examples of this vision.

Chesterfield college is liaising with five schools to deliver vocational training, and South East Derbyshire college is working in small market towns to bring together clusters of schools.

"They are starting to plan a 14 to 16 curriculum that offers vocational opportunities and pathways into post-16," he said.

"The aim is to offer opportunities to choose the vocational route into higher education."

What makes the East Midlands different from most other regions is that there is not one large town that dominates. Rather, there are many market towns with populations of up to 10,000, with high numbers living in rural areas.

"The sparse population is a problem in delivering learning," said Mr Hughes. "It is harder to deliver in towns such as Bakewell and Boston, where there are no high concentrations of people.

"What we have is a low-skilled, low-wage economy revolving around small and medium-sized enterprises that are crying out for better management and leadership skills. Small businesses need to be more effective and we have got to support them in doing that."

This is why a project has been set up to bring small businesses together to work with "skilled facilitators" on marketing, investment and finance courses.

These are just some of the challenges he plans to focus on once he has made some more progress down the the rocky road.

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