Canterbury: the widener's tale

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Tony Blair, with typical New Labour overkill, calls it a "crusade" against adult illiteracy and innumeracy. The woman who will to spearhead that drive is sufficiently New Labour to have been awarded an OBE for 21 years' service to further education. But that doesn't make Sue Pember, the newly appointed director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit just another New Labour apparatchik. At least, the 45-year-old principal of Canterbury College doesn't sound like one.

She has a cheerful, down-to-earth manner, with no airs and graces, and was hurt to learn she was known in Canterbury as "managerial". She responds by pointing to the college's inspection report. It talks about her creative and innovative leadership. "I'm consultative by nature and a member of the trade union Unison," she says.

In fact, her appointment seems largely to have been based on her work in Canterbury. When she took over, in 1991, it was, she says, "quite an enclosed college, but not a wider community college I I made sure you could come to Canterbury College at any level, and I broadened the subject area."

East Kent being a rural economy, the college needed courses in such subjects as animal care and ecology. "The staff responded wonderfully to the idea of making it a community college. The results have improved, we've doubled in size, we have a broader curriculum. We devolved the budgets so that middle-managers have their own budgets and can be innovative in the way that they use them."

It's now also a college with a carefully constructed approach to basic skills. Seven out of 10 of her students arrive with a basic skills need. They may have excellent English but startlingly poor maths, for example. Each student is treated as an individual, and his or her learning needs met as far as possible.

Sue Pember became project manager for widening participation in east Kent, where there are pockets of very low basic skills. She has worked to get funding into those areas, a battle she will now take on nationally.

Changes in the college earned her something of a reputation among the cognoscenti. It was said to be a successful, well-managed operation wth good basic skills work. But she's not a basic skills specialist - and that's a good thing, says Steve Broomhead, chief executive of Warrington Council and an adviser on setting up the strategy unit. "She brings a fresh mind to it," he says.

Sue Pember is a product of Pontypridd Girls Grammar School and Glamorgan College of Education, and you can still catch the Welsh in her voice, now overlaid with what sounds like an east London veneer, probably because her first job was at Redbridge Technical College. She has never returned to Wales.

Like most of her generation, she knew practically nothing about colleges when she graduated and applied to Redbridge only for interview experience. But the moment she stepped inside, she knew that colleges were the places she wanted to work in. "You saw you could make a difference to these people's lives," she says. She taught textiles, fashion and clothing at Redbridge, and eventually moved to Southgate College in north London as a deputy head of department.

While there, she looked around her and thought: people don't become college principals from fashion and textile departments. It seems that beneath the unaffected manner there's a streak of ruthless calculation in Sue Pember. She set out to polish up her CV with a spell working for a local authority. It was a good career move. It not only ensured that she did become a principal, but was crucial in securing her new job too.

It is unlikely that the Government would have appointed someone to run the strategy unit if they had only ever worked in colleges. But her job for Enfield Council involved working with heads of industry and a range of employers in the private sector, finding out what they wanted from further education and ensuring it was delivered. It sparked her interest in basic skills - and she saw that employers wanted first and foremost people with sound basic skills.

But then she made another important career calculation. "It was on the cards that colleges would become autonomous, and I did not want to stay in local authority work when colleges had been taken away."

That was when the Canterbury job came up.

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