Tertiary - CEO retires from the frontline of UK education and training

10th December 2010 at 00:00
A pioneer, a maverick and a self-confessed nerd, Chris Humphries eyes up cabinet-making

Chris Humphries, who has been at the centre of UK education and training for more than 30 years, has decided to retire next month.

From pioneering the trendy child-centred learning of the 1970s to introducing technology to schools, he is also responsible for the creation of the Learning and Skills Council in England, running the national strategic body for skills and the economy, as well as the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), which has made him a familiar presence in Scotland.

Formerly Australian, now a British citizen, Mr Humphries arrived in 1974, while touring Europe in a VW camper van. "Somehow or other, I never left," the 62-year-old says. "I'm still on holiday."

An early career move was making pop videos for Gary Glitter in the 1970s. "Embarrassing moments of your life," he says now.

After switching in and out of various jobs, this self-confessed "nerd" re- entered the world of learning for good in 1982 by joining the Council for Educational Technology south of the border. He was aided in his new role by the expertise he gained programming software for The Who's light shows. This would later lead to work for Acorn Computers, creators of the then ubiquitous BBC Micro.

Mr Humphries said he had to fight against pressure to use technology to replace time with teachers instead of using it to enrich teaching, a trend which he says continues to this day.

After a spell in the private sector ("working with government does your brain in"), he moved into work-based training as chief executive of the Hertfordshire Training and Enterprise Council, one of a network of bodies in England that funded apprenticeships and workplace training while the colleges were in the hands of the Further Education Funding Council. He was then picked to head the TEC National Council.

After English education secretary David Blunkett commissioned the National Skills Task Force, he asked Mr Humphries to chair it with the aim of creating a single body for FE and work-based training: the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

Although he believes the concept was sound, the LSC became mired in controversy. "I think we did two things wrong," he says. "The first thing was I think there was too much leadership which didn't understand the field; both the first and the second chief executives of the LSC did not understand education and training.

"The second thing was the LSC positioned itself on the other side of the table from the colleges and providers. The LSC should have been a champion of its providers."

Mr Humphries then had a seven-year spell running City amp; Guilds, which led to his appointment as the first chief executive of the UKCES.

He says Britain leads the world in ideas for improving skills. "The quality of policy thinking and innovation in this country is fantastic," he says. "But our weakness lies in implementation.

"Other countries were queuing up to find out about Britain's use of industry-led sector skills councils, competence-based qualifications like NVQs and national occupational standards - not developments which are often praised at home."

Mr Humphries commented: "I think we will continue to get it right for the half of people who need higher level skills. There will still continue to be 20 per cent of jobs which are low skilled.

"The biggest challenge is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education). We have essentially accepted an education system in which far too few people are capable of science, technology, engineering and maths. We have failed our kids by not providing enough teachers who are capable of it, of not valuing it.

Mr Humphries intends to spend his retirement as chair of the University of West London, and of Worldskills London 2011 - the "skills Olympics".

"I've no desire to ever be a chief executive again," he said. "The crap factor in being a chief executive is very high. Top of my list is I'd like to do a cabinet-making course." City amp; Guilds, of course.

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