From long-haired hippie to agent of educational change

3rd December 2010 at 00:00
Chris Humphries, the man who drove into the UK in a camper van, made pop videos for Gary Glitter and then pioneered the Learning and Skills Council, talks about his `wild' ride

Chris Humphries has been at the heart of sweeping changes in UK education for more than 30 years. From pioneering the trendy child-centred learning of the 1970s to introducing technology to schools, he is also responsible for the creation of the Learning and Skills Council and for running the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

In an unusual career digression, he even made pop videos for Gary Glitter in the 1970s. "Embarrassing moments of your life," he says now.

It is odd to hear him, on the eve of his retirement next month, describing his career as a holiday, but he means it literally. The Australian, now a British citizen, arrived in the UK in 1974 on a tour of Europe in a VW camper van. "Somehow or other, I never left. I'm still on holiday," the 62-year-old says.

While looking for a job, so he could stay in London a while longer without using up his travel funds, he came across a role with the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) as media resources officer. They were trained in everything from graphic design to film production in order to provide richer learning materials for schools, but the real agenda was to bring an end to traditional chalk-and-talk teaching.

His first school was the troubled Edith Cavell in Hackney, east London - "the first one they ever closed down," Mr Humphries says. "I picked up a kid with a knife in his bag after two weeks at the school. It was a real eye-opener into education in London." But somehow the experience convinced him his future was in education. "That is what kicked me off. It was that training programme that really set the direction of travel." It inspired him about the potential of technology in education and offered a blueprint for how to change the system.

He says ILEA's media resources work was something of a cover to its work as "change agents", manipulating teachers by supporting the most forward- looking ones until the others got envious. "Slowly you brought the whole school round to a different way of working," he says.

But the learner-centred vision was hijacked by people who were "lazy" and lost the rigour intended to be a central feature, Mr Humphries says, prompting the backlash throughout the 1980s and '90s.

So, in the late 1970s, he and some colleagues formed a film company to make educational movies for the nascent Channel 4, which was supposedly to feature 30 per cent educational programming.

They secured the backing of a multi-millionaire German baron, who was more used to funding pop videos, only to find the channel's educational budget had disappeared. There followed three years of making pop promos to pay back their backer: videos for Elton John and Gary Glitter were the beneficiaries of the ILEA training scheme.

Did he lead a rock and roll lifestyle? "Yeah, it was horrible! No, they were three of the most exciting years and three of the most alienating and potentially damaging years of my life. It was wild; it was sex, drugs and rock `n' roll," he says.

"It was exciting but it was very unsatisfying. I knew I had to return to education. Once you're known as a pop promo-maker you can't go into making educational programmes. `Who's this long-haired hippie drug addict who's trying to teach us about education?'"

Educational technology was the natural re-entry point for this self- confessed "nerd", and so he joined the Council for Educational Technology in 1982, which would later work for Acorn Computers, creator of the then ubiquitous BBC Micro.

Mr Humphries says he had to fight the pressure to use technology to replace time with teachers, rather than to enrich teaching - a trend he says continues to this day (see box).

He has similar concerns about the Skills Funding Agency's abandonment of the requirements for minimum guided learning hours. "I am always worried about a philosophy that says you can reduce the human-contact dimension, and particularly the tutor-contact dimension, forever. I just think it's fundamentally flawed and wrong."

Ministers in the 1980s were swayed by a letter from academics working on artificial intelligence, who said it would overtake human intelligence within five years. "Bollocks," says Mr Humphries. "Twenty years later and there isn't anything even vaguely in that territory."

After a spell in the private sector - "Working with government does your brain in," he says - he moved into work-based training as chief executive of Hertfordshire Training and Enterprise Council in 1991, and then head of the TEC National Council in 1994.

It was this experience that would sow the seeds for the creation of the Learning and Skills Council. Looking back, Mr Humphries says the TECs, programmes which funded apprenticeships and training in the workplace while the Further Education Funding College worked with colleges, succeeded in engaging employers like never before but were undone by poor discipline.

"Talk to some of the Conservative ministers now and they will say TECs were some of the most successful employer engagement programmes ever in terms of drawing people into training," he says. "There were a huge number of committed business leaders and genuinely committed staff who believed in the mission. But it was the unevenness of the provision and the stupidness of a small number of TECs - probably half a dozen, eight TECs killed the network."

One of the less successful TECs was in David Blunkett's constituency, so when he became education secretary in 1997 he commissioned the National Skills Task Force, with Mr Humphries as its chair, to create an alternative: a single body for FE and work-based training, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

"What did we do wrong? Because we did (do wrong). I still think the concept was sound," Mr Humphries says. "I think we did two things wrong. The first thing was, I think there was too much leadership which didn't understand the field - both the first and the second chief executive of the LSC did not understand education and training.

"The second thing was, the LSC positioned itself on the other side of the table from the colleges and providers. The LSC should have been a champion of its providers. Universities UK and Hefce (Higher Education Funding Council for England) were the champions for universities; they really helped and supported and fought for them to be good. They acted when things were bad, but they were always seen as with the universities. The LSC was seen as against, doing things to providers."

Geoff Russell, chief executive of the LSC's successor body the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), was brought in from accountancy firm KPMG, but Mr Humphries says he does not think it is making the same mistakes.

"I think there is a genuine understanding that they need a different approach. They are still regulator and funder so there has to be a bit of a distance. But you can either do things by instruction or you can do things by facilitation and encouragement and support.

"The philosophy of SFA is what I think the philosophy of the LSC should have been from the beginning, which was: these are fundamentally well- intentioned organisations, whose desire to make a big, positive difference to the world is real. How do we make them great?"

After a stint running City amp; Guilds, Mr Humphries was appointed the first chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in 2008 - an offshoot of then prime minister Gordon Brown's concern about the nation's international competitiveness in skills, with a wide advisory remit on productivity, employment and training.

Mr Humphries says Britain led the world in ideas for improving skills. "The quality of policy thinking and innovation in this country is fantastic. But our weakness lies in implementation," he says. "Other countries were queuing up to find out about Britain's use of industry-led sector skills councils, competence-based qualifications like NVQs and national occupational standards - not developments which are often praised at home."

Some of the failure to deliver comes from a lack of political nerve, such as what Mr Humphries calls the "biggest missed opportunity of the last 30 years" - the failure to implement Sir Mike Tomlinson's diploma proposals in full.

"I was a passionate supporter of that because I was absolutely convinced it would provide a better foundation for learning. We blew that too. Where we are at the moment still isn't anywhere near as good as Tomlinson would be. It was built on the principal that school education should be the best foundation possible for the majority of children: it was for the 95 per cent, not the 50 per cent. But in fact, we still have a system for the 50 per cent," he says.

"I think we will continue to get it right for the half of people who need higher level skills. There will still continue to be 20 per cent of jobs which are low-skilled.

"The biggest challenge is Stem. We have essentially accepted an education system in which far too few people are capable of science, technology, engineering and maths. We have failed our kids by not providing enough teachers who are capable of it, of not valuing it."

After his retirement, Mr Humphries will chair the University of West London (formerly Thames Valley University) and WorldSkills London 2011 - the "skills Olympics". "I've no desire to ever be a chief executive again. The crap factor in being a chief executive is very high," he says. "Top of my list is I would like to do a cabinet-making course." City amp; Guilds, of course.


1974: Media resources officer, Inner London Education Authority.

1979: Partner, Promedia.

1982: IT programme manager and later assistant director at the Council for Educational Technology.

1988: Manager, courseware development, ICL interactive learning systems.

1989: Sales and marketing manager, education, Acorn Computers.

1991: Chief executive, Hertfordshire Training and Enterprise Council.

1994: Chief executive, TEC National Council.

1998: Chairman, National Skills Task Force.

2001: Director general, City amp; Guilds.

2008: Chief executive, UK Commission for Employment and Skills.


`I told them it wouldn't work'

Chris Humphries has had to fight the pressure to replace teachers with technology - including getting rid of staff and installing computers instead.

"I was always one who was saying to government that technology does not supplant people. You learn better when you learn with others; you learn more because of the interaction and challenge," he says.

"Yet, in 1987, it must have been, I got asked by government to write them a policy proposal about how they would reduce the number of teachers by replacing them with computers.

"I told them at the time it wouldn't work and couldn't work - it was the wrong way to use technology. I haven't changed my view."

The utopianism of the government's request more than 20 years ago is all the clearer from the perspective of the 21st century. It expected to replace teachers with computers at a time when the most common model in schools boasted 128KB of memory and a 2MHz processor. Today, your microwave is probably more advanced.

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