The member for FE

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
Alun Pugh (right), once avice-principal, now a Welsh Assembly member, is a leading proponent of a plan to rationalise college funding.

He talks to Huw Richards.

Miners are not the force they used to be in Labour politics. The twin forces of economics and demographics have seen to that. Sons of miners, most made upwardly mobile by educational opportunities denied their fathers, will be with us for a few years yet.

Alun Pugh is upwardly mobile in the literal as well as the social sense - a keen mountaineer, he believes he is the only member of the Welsh National Assembly to have climbed Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. He has risen from Tonypandy, that archetype among Valleys communities, through the ranks of further education lecturing to a post as head of learning development - in effect a vice- principal - at West Cheshire College. Then, last May, he was elected to the new Assembly as Labour member for Clywd West.

At 44, memories of a Rhondda childhood are still vivid. He says: "I was at junior school in Clydach Vale the day of the explosion at the Cambrian Colliery, where my father worked. A road ran past the school to the pit at the end of the valley and all hell let loose with ambulances, police cars and the rescue service all screaming up the road. I still get quite emotional when I think about it."

But he is the antithesis of the boisterous, voluble stereotype of Valleys politicians incarnated by Neil Kinnock. Pugh is serious - some might say intense - in manner. He chooses his words with immense care and at a speed much appreciated by reporters withfallible shorthand.

He was always politically minded - president of the student union while at the Polytechnic of Wales (now the University of Glamorgan), he says: "I never visualised myself as a career politician."

Rather than representing a change of direction, he sees the move from a further education that started as a Lecturer One at Bridgend in 1983, and also incorporated posts at Newcastle-on-Tyne and Llandrillo, as a logical continuation: "After being on the receiving end of further education policy for 15 years, the new politics in Wales offered me the chance to be involved in policy development."

As well as representing the voters of Clywd West, he might easily be described as the member for further education: "With the Assembly having such a wide range of responsibilities, it would be extremely easy to spread yourself too thin and end up achieving very little. I decided from the start to concentrate on the area I know most about."

His constituency duties are demanding - the seat is a three-way marginal won against Conservative leader and former MP Rod Richards - and while his mailbag and surgeries are not quite as congested as those of the MP, Gareth Thomas (also Labour), there is not a great deal in it. Beyond that, education and training issues take priority.

He was a natural choice when the Assembly's post-16 committee was created and he was the first backbencher to speak when the Education and Training Action Plan was debated on February 1. This blueprint for Welsh post-compulsory education was lying on the desks of newly-elected Assembly members when they arrived in Cardiff last summer. He opened his speech by saying he felt like another AM who had said of an earlier session: "Ifeel that the whole of my life has been a preparation for this debate."

The bulk of his speech was an assault on the status quo in funding which he described as: "Unfair, illogical and impossible to administer. Heath Robinson is not dead, but alive and well and working in 16-plus funding."

He argued that competitive pressures had led to practices redolent of the discredited pensions industry. "There has been mis-selling in education and training as well," he says. "Students have been encouraged to enrol at institutions irrespective of whether that institution or course is the best for them."

He is far from a knee-jerk critic of the marketisation of colleges. While he started work in a system where colleges were departments of local authorities, his degree in business economics has proved in the long run to be far more directly useful than he can ever have expected. He says: "The system is far more student-focused than it ever was before incorporation."

Working as a manager in a college with a low unit of resource provided some skills not always associated with politicians. "I had a lot of experience of saying 'no' to people - quite often when they had come up with a good idea, but one that couldn't be implemented because our priorities dictated that resources went elsewhere," he says.

Having worked on both sides of the border, he has little doubt Wales has advantages, many the consequence of the country's size. "If you found something daft in a FEFCW circular, you'd ring up the person responsible, who you'd almost certainly know anyway, explain the problem and he'd say: 'Hmm, I see what you meanI I'd better consult the sector.' He'd go off, make a dozen phone calls and there would be what they would call a 'clarification' which would sort the problem out. In England, you'd ring the regional office and they'd say: 'We'll have to look at that next year.' Similarly, Fforwm, the Welsh college employer's forum, works very well, not least because you can get all the Welsh principals into a medium-sized conference room."

But there are things to be learnt from the east side of Offa's Dyke. "Parts of the English quality framework are very good," he says, "and I like the idea of publishing scores for aspects of cross-college performance."

But he sees the great Welsh advantage in a more coherent telecommunications network. He is technologically aware enough to be developing a personal website and to say to knowing smiles during the debate on the Education and Training Action Plan: "No speech by me is complete without a reference to information and communications technology."

He argues: "All the Welsh colleges were into Janet (the joint academic network for higher education) long before their English counterparts. It was understandable that England allowed colleges to go their own way, but it has turned out to be a serious blunder."

Offered the chance to alter one thing in Welsh colleges at a stroke, he says: "I don't think overnight solutions and quick fixes work." Offered, instead, one wish (the Bible and Shakespeare were never mentioned in this exchange), he calls for "a national development linking all providers of education, big employers, libraries, community centres, the National Library: a digital democracy at the heart of 'Wired Wales' ".

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