'Break me in half and it says "further education" inside'
For Chris Morecroft, who is beginning his term as president of the Association of Colleges (AoC), things could have worked out very differently if he had made other choices as a young man.
A scientist by training, he had offers after university to become a teacher, to join the British Antarctic Survey, or to work in quality control for Pedigree Chum.
"It was the best paid job of the lot," he recalls of the latter, reassuring anyone unclear about the job description that it involved chemical analysis rather than tasting. But he was certain that teaching would be more rewarding.
"I thought teaching was the best place for me," says the former principal of Worcester College of Technology.
"It allowed me to get better at the science I'd learned and share that with people, and not be pigeonholed in one particular direction."
His first job in education was a supply teacher at a tough Manchester school. When two pupils ran off as he escorted a class between parts of its split site, they congratulated him for only losing two.
After a stint at Eccles Sixth Form College, he joined an experimental partnership of school and college at the Abraham Moss Centre.
In the six years he worked there he said his career "blossomed", and that its teaching methods inspired much of his approach at Worcester. Its resource-based approach was intended for students to learn at their own pace and develop independent study techniques.
But he admits that this early incarnation was not very successful because it failed to provide a balance of teaching styles.
"It was like eating broccoli," he says. "It's very good for you, but eating nothing but broccoli will probably kill you. You need a mix, blend and balance of education to get it exactly right."
This approach has been maligned as FOFO by some ("Fuck Off and Find Out"), but Mr Morecroft argues that the study centre model he developed at Worcester involves close supervision by staff and monitoring through dedicated IT systems, and represents only a quarter of students' timetabled study.
"I learned a lot from the Abraham Moss Centre," he says. "Why were students not successful at 16? Was it because they were six-deep in front of a teacher yakking at them? Why would you want to repeat that?"
Results were up 13 per cent at level 2 in the first year, with a lesser effect at level 3, Mr Morecroft says. It also promised more cost-efficient provision.
"We know resources are tight, and if you squeeze resources and carry on doing things as you did before, things just get diminished," he says.
Mr Morecroft recalls a parent talking about their child's art course: "He tells me it's full-time, but it doesn't look like bloody full-time to me." Cuts to resources might see students only in college two days a week, which parents were unlikely to accept, he warns.
While he tries to persuade colleges of the merits of study centres, he hopes to hold Government to account on college freedoms and agitate for more higher education (HE) provision in FE.
He says colleges need more clarity about how they are going to be judged against their plans for meeting local needs.
"What we don't know, and need to be very careful about at the AoC, is how are they going to review us at the end of the year?" he says. "What we don't want is the Skills Funding Agency turning round and saying, 'We didn't like what you did there, so we're going to cut your money by another 25 per cent.' That is a worry we all live with."
The appeal for a greater role in HE takes up the cause of the two previous presidents, who had campaigned for a new bachelor of vocational studies degree and greater direct funding respectively. Mr Morecroft's appeal will come against a backdrop of cuts.
"Colleges have a fantastic opportunity for widening participation in HE and increasing social mobility for adults who are in work, as well as some of those young people who perhaps couldn't get in via clearing," he says. "Why couldn't you come part-time to college while you've got your part-time job at Tesco?"
MORE TO MORECROFT
Chris Morecroft, 59, was brought up by a single mother and moved north from London with her when she married, studying at Kitson College of Science and Technology, now part of Leeds City College. After "mediocre" O-levels at school, he found himself earning distinctions in his national diploma in science.
"It's a hackneyed phrase, but if you break me in half it says 'further education' inside like it does 'Brighton' through a stick of Brighton rock," he says.
"It was the making of me. College was a great place to become an independent young man. So many young people recognise they need to leave school because it provides that break they need, that jolt to become more independent."