Prophet of bloom

5th January 2001 at 00:00
The head of the sector's once-troubled research agency has always been a man of vision. Now he hopes a new dawn for FE will see his dreams come to life, writes Martin Whittaker

The man who was principal of Gateshead College until a little more than two years ago seems unfazed at finding himself spearheading the agency that is taking centre stage in the new post-16 learning and skills sector. Then again, when Chris Hughes became chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency in September 1998, it was almost as if this role was part of the game plan. Even in his early days he was already promoting the struggling Feda as the "learning development agency".

"We have to set out our stall on lifelong learning and turn the rhetoric into reality," he said back then."We have to ask ourselves,'How do we make it happen?'" Well now it's happening: Feda has become the Learning and Skills Development Agency and broadened its remit from research and development in FE to supporting work-based learning, adult and community education and school sixth forms.

So how, in little more than two years, has Feda gone from being criticised by a Commons select committee as poor value for money to being an important player in the development of policy?

"I think it's turned around because of the right mixture of change of direction, leadership and strategy - and some luck," he says.

Hughes, aged 55, has a reputation for dynamic and progressive leadership. He is a good communicator who is regarded by his colleagues as friendly and down to earth. "He's always got time for a conversation, and he's always generous with his ideas," says one colleague. But most of all, he is known for his vision for the agency.

Chris Hughes was brought up and went to grammar school in Liverpool. He studied economics at the University of Manchester and then taught in Australia for three years. Back in Britain, he moved through the FE ranks and in 1990 was appointed principal of Gateshead College.

He introduced a number of innovative projects at Gateshead, including the opening of a one-stop learning centre in a shopping mall and a key role in the University for Industry's pilot scheme. Well known in policy circles, he has served as a special adviser on FE to the House of Commons Education and Employment Select Committee.

So coming in to turn Feda around seemed a natural challenge. In his first year, he launched a radical refocus of the agency's usiness and won it some big projects, including the Government's programmes in key skills and raising quality and achievement.

"The major change I made when I came was to reposition ourselves as being about major strategic issues rather than simply a provider of services to colleges," he says. "The second thing I tried to get everybody here to do was to walk tall and think of the organisation as important and having something to say."

Hughes says the newly named agency will have to continue to work hard to prove itself because of its unusual identity. "We have no statutory authority and we have no membership base," he says. "So we are only as good as the quality of our work."

The agency's expansion won't necessarily mean huge staff changes. He doesn't see the organisation suddenly taking on lots of new people; more probably, it will call on experts and consultants in the learning and skills sector.

But its growth has brought some problems of space. Its headquarters are now in central London. Hughes hints at a move but says there are no firm plans. "I don't see us not being London based," he says.

He seems happy to be the head of a national organisation that is at the centre of things. "For someone who likes to do things differently, heading a development agency is terrific," he says. "This whole place just buzzes with new ideas. People are looking for you at seminars and conferences to have new thinking. And we are going to need it."

He now sees driving up the demand for learning as one of the sector's biggest challenges.

"We have the policy of lifelong learning, but actually the numbers of people coming through are still disappointing - and we're short of targets," he says. "So I think the next area we apply our minds to is: 'How do we generate new levels of participation?' "This isn't going to be about adverts on the backs of buses or conventional marketing but about major campaigns - How do you mobilise people for learning?'" So how will the change from Feda to a learning and skills agency affect colleges? "We're determined not to give any impression that the new range of responsibilities in any way detracts or substitutes for the work we have done with colleges," says Hughes.

"Colleges so far have been very supportive of the change of name and have seen that it was inevitable. An organisation they know is now the Learning and Skills Development Agency. I think they see that as a benefit."

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