New man at the top

5th August 2005 at 01:00
The new man appointed to the most senior government post in further education was described this week as "one of the most cerebral civil servants in the Department for Education and Skills".

Stephen Marston takes over in September as director general of learning and skills. He was picked from a shortlist of four strong candidates after the departure of Janice Shiner, who had been head-hunted for the job while principal of Leicester college in 2001.

His appointment appears to mark a significant shift in government thinking away from the recruitment of education professionals to top DfES jobs and back to the career civil servant.

It also underlines the government's commitment to the skills agenda.

Mr Marston was the architect of the Government's skills strategy, which he created as director of adult learning and skills. He drafted the skills white papers and served on the board of the University for Industry (Ufi).

Before this, he had extensive civil service experience in higher education, having been seconded to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. A colleague of Mr Marston commented: "He dealt well with HE because he has a single-minded sense of purpose and a tidy mind. It will be interesting to see what he makes of learning and skills."

David Forrester, former director of further education at the then Department for Education and Employment, for whom Mr Marston worked, said he shone throughout his career as a civil servant: "He is an old-style civil servant who complements the new breed."

His appointment provoked mixed reactions from leaders of organisations for colleges and training companies. Some were disappointed as they wanted and expected Peter Lauerner, the acting DG and a short-listed candidate, to get the job. There was also concern that Mr Marston would be "too remote" and "unsympathetic to colleges".

One leading FE figure said: "There are two types of civil servant: those who are passionate about their territory and the chess players. He is a consummate chess player."

Everyone commenting on the appointment spoke of his speed in mastering a brief and his intellectual grasp. He was said to have "a brain the size of a planet", to be "horribly bright" and "to be utterly cerebral". Another learning and skills leader remarked: "He is a home-grown, in-house, tried and tested, fast-track career civil servant - but inflexible."

Others, however, said his determination to get things done and "serve the people" was too often misread as inflexibility.

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