Passion to repair cracks in UK plc

30th September 2005 at 01:00
The new director general for learning and skills tells Ian Nash why FE and DIY present a similar set of challenges

Stephen Marston admits to being educationally deprived. The Cambridge classics graduate and fast-track civil servant, who occupies the most senior further education post in government, bemoans his lack of woodworking skills.

The man, described by a colleague as "probably the most cerebral of men" in the Department for Education and Skills, reveals this little-known fact in his first press interview since becoming director general for learning and skills.

"I am passionate about DIY," he says. When he is not out cycling in the West Country hills at weekends (another passion), Mr Marston is absorbed in plasterwork, renovating and reconstructing his Bristol home. No task is too mundane. "With my DIY interests, being better at woodwork would be really helpful now.

"There's something about tiling and grouting that really appeals - taking things apart that are in a pretty shambolic state," he says.

This is the key to what drives him - practically, intellectually, and emotionally.

"If you can see in your mind's eye exactly what something can become at the end of the project, it is a powerful motivator."

Mr Marston is a project "engineer". He sees the complete map as it is now and, crucially, as it should be after the task.

His approach is no different when it comes to the Government's skills agenda. He is charged with a huge list of priorities post-16. This is smaller since the section was stripped of higher education two years ago.

But the number of challenges is still huge.

It includes 14-19 reforms, Skills for All, the post-16 Standards Unit, Skills for Life, the wider skills strategy and keeping up with the big reviews of FE and the public sector by Sir Andrew Foster and Sandy Leitch.

But the top priority is the white paper on 14-19 reforms - to tackle the roots of adult disaffection and underachievement. This plus the skewing of the whole agenda towards skills provoked howls of protest from those responsible for "other" adult learning. But he makes no apology.

"It is an area that, as a country we have struggled with for so long - the need to provide options for everyone. If we can get that right through reforms set out in the White Paper that will be a huge change for the better. That has to be top of the list," he says.

Almost neck-and-neck with 14-19 is adult skills. It has had two White Papers, the latest this year setting the sequence of skills for young people, focusing on the core of reading, writing and maths, through to adult skills and links with employment.

Why skills? "For some years now, the role that education and training plays in supporting economic activity has been going up the agenda. We have to be able to deliver the skills that the economy needs. But we do not yet have the strategy to provide young people and adults with the skills for a flourishing economy."

Anyone who has seen Mr Marston perform in the public arena will know the passion he has for skills and the tightly argued intellectual coherence in his explanation of the white papers.

Since he was the architect of those papers, this is not surprising. What is surprising is how recently he came to skills, since he speaks like a veteran of the crusade.

"Most of my previous work was in schools, HE and LEA funding," he said. "I have only been directly involved in skills for three years. But certainly for me and, I guess, for most people moving into the job at that time, you cannot help being struck by the huge need and potential.

"That is where the passion comes from - I did not have to worry about it before. But, once skills became part of my job, it all became obvious."

In 1983, he joined the then Department of Education and Science where, according to former director of further education David Forrester, "he excelled and shone throughout his early career".

For almost 20 years, he did several big jobs including cabinet secretary, chief civil servant for the Higher Education Funding Council for England in Bristol and board member of the University for Industry (Ufi). He fell in love with Bristol and, having moved there, now splits his time between London and the West Country.

He also gained a lot from HE that prepared him for FE. "Being concerned to keep in touch with the leaders of institutions helped me understand what makes them tick and what behaviour gets best results," he says.

One of Mr Marston's priorities is to stop the bickering over "demand-led" and "supply-side" issues.

"The rhetoric gets over-simplified and misunderstood. Where it shapes what I do is in trying to get a lot better understanding of what employers are really asking us to do and put in place a set of mechanisms to do it. The sector skills councils (representing industry and its training needs) are part of the process."

He is acutely aware, however, of the need to keep a critical eye on the whole skills project. In the past, the pendulum has swung too far - one week it's adult learning, the next week schools, then back to skills.

Getting the balance right was crucial, he says.

"We have to beware of unintended consequences and damage along the way.

That is what the Learning and Skills Council can help us with."

Project people tend to see mainly short-term goals. Not Marston. He points out that the implementation programme for 14-19 and skills goes through to 2008 and 2015. "If you look at the Leitch Review, it goes through to 2020."

To maintain 20-20 vision on the learning and skills agenda, it is vital to have everyone behind it.

"I am confident we have the support of college principals and others. You can get it wrong, so the annual business reviews of colleges will show how well programmes are working."

The need for a concerted approach to improving the nation's skills was obvious, he says. "If we don't do that, if we are not a competitive economy, then investment in public services, satisfaction in jobs and quality of life will all be a lot harder to get."

This single quote could be ascribed his "vision statement", whether his project is grouting walls or reshaping UK skills for a better economy.

* ian.nash@tes.co.uk

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