Troubleshooter is happy to be Mr Niace guy

6th January 2012 at 00:00
The adult learning charity's new chief says it is in good health

By the end of his career with the Learning and Skills Council and the Skills Funding Agency, wherever David Hughes was, there was a crisis. But not through any fault of his: he was picked as a troubleshooter for disaster areas, ranging from the failure of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) payments system to the collapse of the college capital programme.

So when Mr Hughes took over at Niace, the charity that advocates adult learning, in the autumn, staff may have been relieved that a safe pair of hands had been appointed to follow Alan Tuckett's 23-year reign, but they may also have feared it was a sign they were in for tough times. After all, he arrived at the charity after it had shed nearly two-thirds of its staff over the previous couple of years, leaving it with about 100 people.

But the new chief executive says Niace has weathered the storm and is well prepared for the future. "There is a part of me that is slightly disappointed that Niace isn't in crisis, because I've been in so many jobs in the last few years that have been in crisis," he says. "But, although it needs some change because of the funding situation, it's a really sound organisation with great people. It is highly respected."

The charity's reserves stand at pound;2 million taking into account its pension deficit - considerably under the pound;8.5 million it aimed for in 2009, making it still potentially vulnerable to a loss of income. But that pension deficit fell sharply last year and it cut its salary bill by pound;2.2 million, heading back into surplus.

There are, however, signs that Niace is having to reassess its ambitions. This spring it will update its five-year strategic plan. When Mr Hughes talks about the future of adult learning, he speaks about the need to consolidate what we have, a more modest aim than the first goal of last year's strategy: "to reverse the overall decline in participation in publicly funded provision".

"We have to work hard to retain the public funding that is there and to retain the quality," Mr Hughes says. "If you look at the quality of learning over the last decade, it's improved across a whole range of measures. That emphasis on teaching and learning and meeting the needs of students - we don't want to go backwards on that. And there are some worrying signs. As the resource gets smaller, is it possible to retain quality? Is it possible to maintain the outreach work to engage with learners?"

But one project Niace is embarking on may help persuade the government to maintain spending on adult education. Mr Hughes says the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Skills Funding Agency are working with Niace on what he calls "groundbreaking research" into the social return on investment in lifelong learning.

"We're hoping we can get to the point where the government and the Treasury can say, we now have a way of measuring the social return on investment that should secure that investment," he says. "It's very difficult to sit down with an economist and say, this is worth investing solely and narrowly on an economic basis. But the government said it's bigger than that, it's much more broad. That's very powerful."

He uses the example of the South West London Recovery College, run by the local mental health trust, which is using health budgets to fund education to strengthen people's ability to live independently and to reduce the cost of therapeutic care.

While this focus on the social value of adult learning is Niace's familiar territory, Mr Hughes also wants to change perceptions of the charity. "We want to get more into the whole area of learning at work. Lots of adults learn at work. We think there's a really important role to support employers to make that as effective as possible. Not just because of the job, but because they're human beings who live in a community and the impact of learning at work has a big influence on what people do at home."

That means working to ensure that employers' spending on learning benefits not only managers but the whole workforce. The other side of the coin is encouraging greater individual contributions through fees, where people can afford it. "We have to be quite tough on saying that the public investment, because it is so precious, needs to be going to the people who need the support the most," he says, adding that the new loans system for level 3 qualifications is a "a massive culture shift for our society", which is causing a great deal of worry.

At the same time, Mr Hughes wants to promote the idea that too great a proportion of public money is spent on young people. He admits the argument is a tough sell at a time of record youth unemployment. "It's a really difficult time to be talking about it," he says. "There is already a completely disproportionate amount being spent pre-25 - if you look at schools, colleges, universities - compared to what's spent on people 50- plus. And if you think about it, that's still 15 to 20 years of their working life left and possibly another 15 to 20 years of life after that. Part of our job in Niace is to remind people that lifelong learning is what the government wants."

But then he has had tough jobs before. Speaking to TES, he revealed for the first time that during negotiations over the 2008 crisis in the EMA payments system the contractor, Liberata, demanded an extra pound;20 million within 24 hours or it would shut down the programme. "The negotiation was tooth-and-claw. I wouldn't say we sorted it out, but we averted disaster: the disaster would have been 600,000 young people not getting their allowance. Of course, since then ."

One of three children born to a clerk and a dinner lady, Mr Hughes has two brothers who left school at 16: he rebelled by taking A-levels and heading to Cambridge for a geography degree. ("I loved the education but I hated the privilege and pomp.")

His experience growing up in council housing in London encouraged him to start a career at housing co-operatives and representing tenants. But he came to realise that education was a more fundamental way of improving people's lives. "I saw the (former education secretary David) Blunkett vision for lifelong learning and I just thought it was fantastic: this is what I'd been doing and I'd just never realised. Learning really is important for everyone throughout their lives. I went to work for Derbyshire Learning and Skills Council, thinking this was my platform to change the world. I probably was a bit naive - and hopefully still am."

After moving to London to improve the dysfunctional local Learning and Skills Council, Mr Hughes was thrown into the midst of the national crises that finished the former funding body, but emerged with his reputation intact, even enhanced.

But he sees his new job as the best opportunity to pursue his ideals. "I always thought the Niace job was as near as I could get to working for an organisation whose beliefs and values were close to mine and was doing something I really passionately believe in."


1985: BA (Hons) in geography at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

1988: Postgraduate diploma in social housing, University of Salford

1990: Worked in housing and tenant participation in Liverpool

1993: Worked in housing co-operatives and voluntary services in western Australia

1997: Chief executive, Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service

2000: Executive director, Derbyshire Learning and Skills Council

2005: Regional director, London Learning and Skills Council

2008: National projects director, Learning and Skills Council

2010: Provider services director, Skills Funding Agency

2011: Chief executive, Niace.

Original headline: Why this troubleshooter is happy to be Mr Niace guy

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