RAY DOWD, the college principal turned champion of further education reform, retires at the end of this month, when he finishes his year-long job with the Learning and Skills Council, selling its Agenda for Change to colleges.
It represents the end of a distinguished career which has seen Mr Dowd, 55, rise from leaving school with no qualifications to become a national player on the FE stage. His achievements range from ground-breaking work in the 1970s to make sure numeracy was part of vocational training to pioneering innovative college-employer relationships. He has also turned around four failing colleges and had a role in persuading ministers to allow colleges to award their own foundation degrees, a milestone for the sector, he feels.
"The important thing for me is that the principle of further education being able to validate its own qualification has been established," he says. "There is the confidence in FE to be able to do these things."
Mr Dowd says his year as Agenda for Change champion has been the pinnacle of his career.
"It's been a very worthwhile exercise," he says. "My role has been to challenge the system and the sector on ways it can improve. And I think we are seeing evidence of that. We're seeing greater freedoms, the 157 Group (of large colleges) and self-regulation.
"I think the landscape for FE is really exciting, never more so than at the moment."
His appreciation of further education started 40 years ago when, at 15, he became an apprentice decorator after being branded a failure at school.
"The teaching staff at my secondary modern in Manchester treated people who weren't doing any qualifications as only suitable for working in a factory," he says. "But then I went to college one day a week."
At 24, he took up his first teaching post, at Lewisham College in south-east London, where he collaborated on developing learning materials for numeracy in vocational subjects. He moved on to Blackpool and The Fylde College.
Then, in 1983, he became a senior lecturer at Rumney College in Cardiff, where he was promoted to head of department. He also became chief executive of a company set up by the college to involve employers in training. In 1983, the company had an annual turnover of pound;80,000. By the time Mr Dowd left nearly 10 years later, it had grown to pound;1.2 million.
As well as holding down two jobs - running a department of 30 staff and the company - he also studied for a postgraduate diploma and a masters degree in management with the Open University.
His first principalship was at Hopwood Hall College, Rochdale, in 1994. It was one of the first colleges to be inspected post-incorporation and had been awarded poor grades for leadership and management, quality and curriculum. Within four years, at its next inspection, the college gained grades 1 and 2.
His next rescue mission was Wirral College, which he took over in 1999 with debts of pound;14 million. "I remember walking into the college in my first week. There were tiles missing from the ceilings and no students. It was like the Mary Celeste," he says. By 2004, it had paid off its debts. It is now a centre of vocational excellence in health and social care and construction.
While at Wirral College, he was called to act as interim manager of the ailing and debt-ridden Salisbury College. Then he got the call to do the same at beleaguered Halton College in Cheshire, which had suspended its principal.
In 2005 he was part of a further education delegation which lobbied Bill Rammell, the further and higher minister, for foundation degrees to be validated by FE colleges. Their wish was granted in the Further Education and Training Bill published in November.
Since last March, Mr Dowd has visited colleges throughout England, compiling a report for the LSC on the sector's progress.
"I'm absolutely clear in my mind that the purpose of FE is to make sure both employers and learners are successful," he says. "So I don't defend the LSC; I don't defend colleges. I defend what I need to do for learners and colleges."
Mr Dowd and wife, Julia, the director of young people's learning at the LSC, have a 1790s mill on the Devon-Somerset border, which he now intends to renovate.