Margaret Davey, just honoured with an OBE, is the new principal of the famed City Lit, and is determined to bring the institution into the late 20th century.
This bastion of "liberal traditional" adult education tucked away in London's Covent Garden was established in 1919, but its roots are in the self-help era of the 19th-century mechanics' institutes and the Working Men's College.
The main building, opened in 1939 by Poet Laureate John Masefield, was the first adult education institution funded by a local authority. It is one of four colleges in London funded by the Further Education Funding Council, which provides 62 per cent of its income.
When she took over at the beginning of May, Ms Davey found "an awful lot of emphasis put on history; but it's important to move into preparing for the next 10 years. We have excellent people here with good ideas which need focusing and enabling. It's exciting to get people to do what they want to do."
The principal has had years of practice doing just that in Croydon since she was appointed head of the adult education service in 1983 - it became the continuing education and training service (CETS) in 1990. When she started, the budget was Pounds 150,000 and she had four staff. When she left, there were 90 staff and a Pounds 4 million budget, mostly from external sources such as the local training and enterprise council, the Department of Employment and the European Union.
Ms Davey presided over a huge shake-up of the service in Croydon, turning it into a 50 weeks per year operation with more emphasis on vocational training for unemployed people. CETS gained a Charter Mark for its customer service in 1994. Staff researched what students wanted in order to win the award.
To their surprise the most frequent complaint was about the number of cancelled courses and the time taken for refunds. "They were not about the quality of our teaching, or cold buildings."
Refunds were easy - frontline staff were issued with cheque books. "But I was shocked to find that none of us really knew the level of cancellations. " So curriculum staff worked out ways of guaranteeing programmes. In 1992-93, the cancellation level was 30 per cent. Now it is 7 per cent.
She intends to carry out the same exercise at the City Lit and open the college for enrolments in July rather than September. Next year she plans to run courses in the summer. "We are looking at customer care as we did in Croydon - it's all there, but it needs to be pulled together," adding "from September we're all wearing name badges."
In her first month, Ms Davey was responsible for opening a single phone line for enrolments to replace 25 or so separate numbers for the various departments. The "plethora" of committees in the college, which has 90 full-time and around 800 part-time staff, needs to be reviewed, she said. "We need a senior and middle management adjustment- not a restructuring - because the separate sections should be formed into wider units".
Ms Davey is a shining example of an adult learner. As a farmer's wife in Surrey, she took language classes while her three sons grew up, but no one suggested exams.
Eventually, she gained qualifications which culminated in a diploma in educational management and an MSC through distance learning at Central London Polytechnic and the National Extension College. "Always part-time, always while working. I have an understanding of crawling up the ladder," she said.
full honours list, page 15.