Simon Midgley talks to Richard Williams about his commitment to social justice and his new role at the helm of Kingsway College.
RICHARD Williams, principal designate of what will be one of the largest further education colleges in the country, Westminster Kingsway College, is used to seeing things from the slightly off-centre perspective of someone who does not come from a conventional, white nuclear-family background.
The son of a Bangladeshi father and a white British mother, he was brought up with other children from ethnic-minority backgrounds by foster parents in Clacton, Essex, in the 1960s after his parents separated.
While he had a very loving childhood, he says, it was not orthodox. After failing the 11-plus, he went to a secondary modern boarding school near Chelmsford where he passed 13 GCEs and CSEs at one sitting before transferring at the age of 16 to Colchester grammar school, again as a boarder.
A BA in humanities at Thames Polytechnic followed - he specialised in modern history - and, after securing an upper second, a three-year research scholarship at Hull University where he studied the industrial decline in Britain between 1870 and 1914.
It was at Hull that he discovered the rewards of teaching non-traditional adult learners in undergraduate economic history classes. Without completing his PhD, he then enrolled on a post-16 PGCE course at Garnett College in Roehampton.
While doing his teaching practice at City and East London
College in Whitechapel, he was fortunate to be working with a very experienced team of lecturers, under the inspiring leadership of the college's then principal, Ron Aldridge, who were exploring new ways of making learning accessible to a wider population.
It was very exciting, Williams says, developing pre-vocational learning, competency-based assessment and a student-centred curriculum. At the end of the year he won a distinction in his PGCE and landed a job at the college as a lecturer.
Much of his ensuing 21 years teaching in further education colleges have been spent wrestling with the challene of engaging non-traditional learners. After two years at City and East London College, he was promoted to section head responsible for pre-vocational education.
A senior lectureship at Paddington College followed before he became head of the pre-vocational and business education department at Hendon College.
Staying at Hendon for more than 10 years, he eventually became vice-principal, and he played a key role in developing the college's new pound;8.5 million campus in Colindale. Four years ago, he became the principal of Kingsway College, which was on the verge of closure as it was suffering from a huge financial deficit, and dire industrial relations. A major restructuring plan and more than 120 redundancies followed.
Today, the college has grade one financial status, staff and student morale have been restored and the college has won Investors in People status.
Williams says he has been successful in working towards ends to which he is passionately committed. "I am very heavily motivated by feelings of social justice, of entitlement. I think I have quite a strong ethical sense of the importance of education in enabling people to participate fully and to be valued as individuals.
"The social justice issue for me comes from having a non-standard background, and having had the experience of being fostered in a very mixed-race setting and being mixed race myself."
He identifies his strengths as being an ability to visualise the outcome of processes leading to change, being an effective communicator and being willing to engage in discussion and open debate with staff.
"One of the things that is important to me is that I am very comfortable working in the college. I like being around students and I like being around staff. I find it tremendously energising.
"I feel very lucky in that when I wake up in the morning I always have in my mind things that we might be able to do today, tomorrow or the next month that would move it all forward. I have been working in colleges for 21 years and my feeling of enthusiasm for doing so is undiminished."