Midwife expects his child to deliver

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Bryan Sanderson, the departing chair of the Learning and Skills Council, talks to Steve Hook about why it pays to be hard headed

Bryan Sanderson holds the distinction of having been chairman of Britain's largest company as well as its biggest-spending quango. When he steps down from the Learning and Skills Council this summer, it is far from certain that the former chairman of BP will be lost to further education.

"I would like to work in the public sector again," he says. "And I think I would like it to be in FE. I am a convert to the sector - it is under-valued and under-rewarded."

In between his current duties as chairman of Bupa, the healthcare provider, the job has taken up around two days a week of his time. He is also about to become chairman of Standard Chartered Bank.

Having followed the school and university route, he admits the LSC post has relieved him of his ignorance of what, in some quarters, is still referred to as the "Cinderella sector".

But his enthusiasm for FE's role in narrowing the economic divide - the subject of many impassioned conference speeches - is underpinned by a hard-headed business philosophy.

His attitude is of the proverbial omelette and egg variety. Put crudely, if you want your organisation to flourish, you have to get rid of people from time to time.

BP and Bupa each have regular dealings with the public sector, and Mr Sanderson's scepticism about the machinations of government is undiminished.

"There are so many levers to pull," he says. "Processes are antiquated. I would argue the civil service, and the public sector in general, has really not adjusted to the age of information technology. It is 30 years behind.

"What has developed is frozen in aspic. There is a complex set of bureaucratic practices which is almost totally resistant to change."

But he thinks the LSC, working through 47 local offices and a national office in Coventry, has set a higher standard than other parts of the public sector.

The number of administrative staff has been reduced, while the budget has increased. As Mr Sanderson put it: "You don't move on unless you change and people are got rid of."

When he took up the post in 2000, he had the task of starting the organisation from scratch. Like many observers, he was perplexed by the complex way in which cash was distributed by the Further Education Funding Council, which the LSC was to replace. The decision by ministers to have 47 local LSCs was, in his view, "not a bad shot".

He believes the formula is working. The organisation has been entrusted with an unprecedented amount of money and he feels the Department for Education and Skills will be rewarded for its trust, as long as its expectations are realistic.

"We are not going to achieve all of our targets but we have made progress on most of them, and we are moving in the right direction. Level 2 is the most obstinate and needs working on."

Despite the LSC's size, and its responsibility for vocational training, it remains relatively obscure to the public - and even to the businesses it serves. Mr Sanderson is relaxed about this.

"Probably not a lot of them know about us," he says. "But I am not concerned about that. At the outset I felt we have to decide whether we are going to be a Shell or a Unilever."

He believes the media's appetite for a balls-up and the politicians' desire to appear infallible is a straitjacket for public services.

He says: "We have got very risk-aware. So action is taken to protect the public at the best end, and politicians at the worst end. Mostly the former. There has to be more risk-taking.

"The key is to get the local LSCs to deliver. And we are getting confident enough to tackle the issues."

Looking back, he believes he has finished the job he was hired for - to act as midwife at the birth of the LSC.

"I think I got it going and held it together through a difficult start-up," he says. "It is not another public-sector disaster area like the Dome or anything to do with transport or defence."

You would expect Mr Sanderson to believe the public sector can learn from business, and he feels the voice of small firms particularly need to be heard more. But like many of its public-sector critics, he agrees the LSC doesn't need to hear from so many business people on local LSC boards.

He says: "The law says 40 per cent have to be business people and we have got about that. It is a high proportion.

"Education is so complex. Maybe you could have more sixth-form college and FE college people. But I would certainly not put business representation as high as 40 per cent."

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