Crowned with a top job in the limelight

1st March 1996 at 00:00
What should further education expect from The Grateful Dead fan with a mission? Lucy Hodges finds out. Welcome to the top education administrator who publicly admits that he is a fan of The Grateful Dead - Stephen Crowne, chief executive of the new Further Education Development Agency.

It is hard to imagine a less hippy enthusiast than Mr Crowne, 38, who has been a high-flying civil servant for most of his working life. He was plucked from Whitehall obscurity to craft a new body from a merger of the old Further Education Unit for curriculum matters and the FE Staff College. FEDA became a commercially-run Government quango charged with reshaping the college curriculum and undertaking research and training to boost standards. So how is he doing so far?

Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, says: "He has enjoyed quite a successful honeymoon period. Colleges are now looking for the goods."

Her desire for action is echoed by others who think the agency - set up last April - should be making more of an impact. Some further education experts mention Crowne's mandarin credentials, his youth and self-effacing manner and question whether he has the charisma to manage 150 staff, a budget of Pounds 7 million while also producing a vision for the agency, drumming up private-sector cash and leading hundreds of FE colleges.

"The sector is looking to FEDA to give us a research base," says Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College in Lancashire. "There is very little strategic information about colleges. There is a role there, but it needs to be articulated and put into practice."

Mr Crowne, a star at the then Department for Education, had a classic career path for a civil service high-flier. He was private secretary to then junior minister Rhodes Boyson and later principal private secretary when John MacGregor was education secretary. He had responsibility for policy on teacher training, implementing GCSE, and for setting up the new Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council. He ended up as an assistant secretary and head of the department's FE branch, a post he occupied for three-and-half-years.

One of his first jobs at the old DES in 1981 was as assistant to Nancy Trenaman, who was conducting a one-person review of the now defunct Schools Council. The report which Mr Crowne helped to produce was rejected by ministers. It concluded the concept of the Schools Council was sound but that it needed to be streamlined. Instead the Government decided to split its functions and have separate bodies looking after the curriculum and qualifications.

"In my first head-above-the-parapet attempt we failed to convince the powers that be," he says. The Schools Council always had a "dirty" relationship with the DES and ministers, he says. "The final straw was when a senior civil servant discovered that voting was determined outside the actual meetings. We thought we couldn't be associated with that."

Mr Crowne enjoyed working for Rhodes Boyson, the colourful Tory MP for Brent North finding him both "fascinating" and "absolutely infuriating". His redeeming feature was the fact that he always looked after his staff.

Another man Mr Crowne has a lot of time for is John MacGregor. Although he lacked colour, he was a tremendously thorough and conscientious Education Secretary, Mr Crowne says.

Until now he has been responsible for policy under a succession of Conservative ministers. Running the Further Education Development Agency is a very different kind of job. It will take time for Mr Crowne to find his role, and he doesn't have long. He says it will take three to five years to get the agency up and running. "If in five years we're not a very powerful force in further education, we will have failed," he adds.

Mr Crowne's own education was far removed from FE - Latymer Upper, then a direct-grant school in Hammersmith, followed by a history scholarship to Queen's College, Cambridge. His father was a chemistry lecturer and head of department at the City of London Polytechnic. His mother taught history at secondary level. Today he lives in Godalming, Surrey, with his wife, who teaches English at a private school and his three children, aged six to 11. The eldest attends an independent school.

He is described by acquaintances as "able" and "nice". Some call him enigmatic, maybe because of his diffident manner.

Further education expects a lot of Mr Crowne, but is he aware of his audience's impatience? "It is reassuring that people are concerned and want to see an impact," he says. "It shows they think there's a job to be done. Everyone is always impatient for change. Organisationally there's been a lot to do in pulling this together. In the long run that will pay off."

How does he define FEDA's role? It has to be better than the two organisations it replaced, he says. Further education has undergone enormous change in the last three to five years - incorporation, new funding approaches and a much higher profile.

"I still think what has been achieved in FE in the past three years has been seriously under-appreciated - the huge increase in student numbers, the rise in the number of qualifications, changes in the curriculum," he says.

"What it has exposed is that the pace of change and this whole variety of issues that colleges have been dealing does require some solid arrangements for support and development."

The first months of the agency's existence were spent consulting FE colleges and producing a strategy plan, published last October. That document gave FEDA the basis on which to restructure the organisation. Everyone had to reapply for their former jobs, a practice beloved in the private sector. Some staff are leaving, but the majority are staying put.

Mr Crowne has a clear sense of direction and commitment to further education. "I have pinned my career on this," he says. "I want to make a success of it."

He may have been a civil servant all his life, but he was a can-do one amazed by how laid-back the old Department for Education and Science was when he joined in 1978. He has now left Whitehall, but never forget, he listens to The Grateful Dead . . .

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