Ian Graham

15th April 2011 at 01:00
The principal of John Wheatley College discusses his single- mindedness, the college's work with prostitutes and the future of further education in Scotland

What should people know about you?

I am pretty difficult. My reputation is one of single-mindedness and really just hammering ahead to get things done.

How did you get started in education?

I was momentarily a postgraduate student at Glasgow University, but I couldn't make ends meet, so I got a job at Reid Kerr College in Paisley. That was my first teaching job, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I have never been out of education since then.

When you first started working in education, what were your expectations?

I didn't really know what further education was about. It was a job, essentially. But I soon realised that I really did enjoy it.

At John Wheatley College, you have a far higher proportion of students from deprived backgrounds than any other college in Scotland. How does that affect what you do?

It means that everything has to be tailored. We are not a typical college in any way. We don't have a lot of full-time courses. We also do a tremendous amount of schools link programmes. It requires our staff to be very different. We insist they teach on the entire spectrum of the college's work.

You do work with former prostitutes, too?

Glasgow City Council has had an initiative for women involved in commercial sexual exploitation for some time. It's a particular issue in the east end, and we have run programmes with local women who are either incarcerated or who have indicated that they want to get out. It's all very well saying leave prostitution, but if there is no alternative in terms of income, it's pretty difficult to see what they would do.

What effects do you think the government cuts will have on colleges?

It could be catastrophic for here. This whole notion of purely addressing what seem to be the needs of the economy, I take huge exception to that. First of all, I am not exactly sure if anyone actually knows what employers need out there. I take the view it doesn't really matter what the hell we do here, provided we are developing core skills. The second thing is higher education never gets asked this question. How many philosophers are going to be involved in thinking for a living at the end of their course?

Are we in the process of creating a generation of young unemployed?

I think Marx said "history repeats itself - first time is a tragedy, second time is a farce" and, essentially, I think we had our tragedy in the mid-Eighties and early Nineties, and it strikes me that we are coming for our farce now, because that is exactly what is going to happen. The problem we have here is that nihilism sets in. Essentially, people accept that there aren't any jobs. There are jobs out there and they can be chased by people, there are positive outcomes for young people.

What do you make of the articulation between FE and HE?

The thing that is mind-bendingly awful for this college is that it makes so much sense - a year or two years here, and then a year, two years off a degree programme. And yet, there are people leaving colleges who end up taking six years to do an honours degree. They go into a place like Glasgow University and their HND gets them into first year, and they start again. So they get a debt in HNC and HND and they then get four years' more debt in higher education. It is an outrage; it should never have happened. Universities should be slated for that.

You have said that you think the NEET agenda has been treated a bit like a hobby, a good idea only as long as we can afford it.

That is my concern. Essentially, what it seems to be is "We can't afford this stuff with these guys out there, they have had their chance" - which they haven't - "so just let them live in poverty". That is not what we are willing to accept and, unfortunately, that is what might happen.

What are your hopes for the future of further education?

This college took a 15 per cent cut for next year. We managed to deal with that without compulsory redundancies, but at the back of my mind, I hope this is the worst it is going to get. I hope they have the nuts to cut other places in the next couple of years. My hope is that we have had our cut, and that we get left relatively alone for the next two years, because I'm not sure the sector can take it.

What would you say is the greatest achievement of your career?

I suppose it is the fact that this place has gone from existing in two decaying and falling-down schools into reasonable facilities, and the college has a good reputation. When I started, we enrolled 700 students a year; we now enrol 8,500 a year.

You received the Lord Provost's education award last year and an OBE in 2003. What does that kind of recognition mean to you?

The OBE was a nice day out in London. I've had the Lord Provost award for services to education twice, and frankly that means a lot more to me. That has come from here, from the city, and I think I am the only person who has won it twice. The Queen's Award to the college for community regeneration three years ago was a recognition. Being in a minority of one is the definition of madness, so it was essentially our certificate of sanity, because we are a minority of one in Scotland and someone recognised nationally that we were doing something significant.


Age: 59

Education: Queen Victoria School, Dunblane, Glasgow College of Technology, BSc Hons University of London

Career: Lecturer Reid Kerr College; education officer and later assistant director for education, Strathclyde Regional Council; HMIE; principal of John Wheatley College since 1992, retiring at the end of this month.

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