Premier-league player hangs up his boots

5th March 2004 at 00:00
It is as good a reason as any to retire. "The job's done," said Chris Hughes, who stands down as chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency at the end of the year.

And by all accounts it is a job well done. The 58-year-old took over its predecessor organisation, the Further Education Development Agency in 1998 when it was in a parlous state: it had been criticised by a Commons select committee as poor value for money.

He led the relaunch and renaming of the body and expanded its activities from further education colleges to cover all of the learning and skills sector, including work-based learning, adult and community education, and post-14 activities in schools.

He says his achievement has been to turn the LSDA into an influential and important organisation with strategic clout. It could not remain as just a provider of services to colleges. It has become the national body for the development of policy and practice in post-16 education and training. In six years he has taken the LSDA from an pound;8 million to pound;36m business.

He has helped to move the debate on from "when it was just a shouting match - must do better - red and amber lights".

The reason for success is simple, he says: "You have to have credibility with practitioners, who realise you understand them and that you have influence, and you have influence with government because you have credibility with people at the sharp end."

He is certainly a man of the people. He worked in FE for 30 years, 13 as a college principal. His Learning World in the Gateshead shopping centre, was the first one-stop shop for education. "Courses R Us" was his soundbite.

He played a key role in setting up the University for Industry pilot in the North-east.

He served as a specialist adviser to the House of Commons education and employment select committee. His knowledge and experience were invaluable as the colleges tried to raise their profile nationally.

A qualified teacher, his first job was in a high school in Sydney, having gone to Australia as a pound;10 migrant. He travelled by sea and "ended up joining a Woman's Weekly cruise, and spent four-and-a-half weeks with 450 mature women".

From the start, Chris Hughes has been determined to drive up the demand for lifelong learning. But not for him adverts on buses or conventional marketing techniques. "It was naive to think that people would just roll up. We have made a big difference to understanding how to get people engaged in further education, to find out what activates people, to look into the financial issues."

The new leadership college, with the LSDA as one of the partners, should break new ground, he thinks.

"The biggest agenda of all is the whole 'people' business in FE." By which he means issues over pay, concern that people are not sufficiently valued, problems of a sector which lacks confidence and feels hard done by.

"Leadership at all levels is a challenge, getting people to change their own destiny."

Then there is demography. There is an ageing population in the colleges.

"We desperately need new blood, and it needs to be fast-tracked. And as for diversity, it is a scandal that we only have four black principals."

It is a big agenda, and one he may want to get back to when he retires - as well as spending more time with his record collection and his family. He also wants to go back to writing, when he can be "less responsible".

What opportunities has he missed. "Pass. I cannot think of anything."

Although he is a graduate of Manchester university (economics) he went to grammar school in Liverpool and it is that city's football team he supports.

At his age he could have had the top job at the Learning and Skills Council if he wanted it, but he says "the trick is to leave when you are at the top of the game".

Advice he could probably give to his favourite team's manager.

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