For now, Peter Lauener has put off retirement. He had it all planned. His time as chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) had come to an end and a permanent chief executive at the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) had been appointed. He was almost out the door. But then he received a phone call, asking him to step in – for a short time only – as chief executive of the Student Loans Company.
“I was dead-set on retirement, but I was asked if I would do this for six months and I thought it would be completely different and interesting. There were well-publicised problems last summer, so this is a clear interim role. But I thought I could do that and make a difference, so I put things on hold a little bit.”
Only a matter of months later came the news that Lauener was to be appointed chair of Newcastle College Group – one of the biggest college groups in the country. So now, splitting his time between Sheffield, where he lives, London and his native Scotland, retirement seems a long way off again.
As chief executive of both the Education Funding Aagency and the Skills Funding Agency – and then later the ESFA – he was in charge of budgets worth hundreds of millions, funding school as well as further education provision. Having also been the first, if interim, chief executive of the new Institute for Apprenticeships when it was set up in 2016, Lauener has held many of the strings of the reforming FE system in his hands simultaneously.
As you would expect from a man who started his career as a labour market economist and spent much of it in charge of vast amounts of money, Lauener is a numbers man. And it turns out that this particular affinity started very early: “My father was an actuary. He used to pay my brother and myself to check his calculations – so to be his second checkers on essentially a spreadsheet all done by hand. We would spend four hours on an afternoon checking all the figures, and there was always a great moment when we found a mistake. It made life worth living. I was probably about 12 or 13.”
His early career was spent in economic forecasting for the Scottish Office. But the job that had the most formative impact on him, Lauener says, is the time he spent at the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) in Sheffield in the 1980s. “It was a fantastic organisation. I absolutely loved it. The really great thing the MSC did – and this speaks a lot to my own commitments and interest – is they revolutionised the opportunities that were available to young people who had not been successful at school.” He believes this was the birth of the kind of structured training now underpinning apprenticeships.
It is the human stories from his career that Lauener remembers most clearly. “That is what really matters to me.”
One such tale is from his time at the MSC. “The thing that had a lasting impression on me was when I visited a scheme in Manchester, a horticultural Youth Training Scheme. There was a young lad who had not done well at school but he was getting teaching from someone who had worked as a horticulturalist, pricking out seedlings in a tray. It was very basic stuff, but that young man was going to be much more able to hold down a job than after any education he would get at school. It had a very big impact on me.”
His involvement with the school building programme as chief executive of the EFA has also left him with a lasting memory. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire last summer, a temporary location had to be found for pupils of a primary school in the immediate vicinity of the tower.
“If we split up the children, the school would have never recovered. So we set ourselves the challenge of building a school in two months flat – and we did it,” Lauener says.
He adds: “My part in it was almost nothing, my part was signing and saying ‘this will cost a lot of money and it is worth it’, but we built a school in two months and that was something we were able to do for the community.”
A strong supporter of WorldSkills UK and attendee of international competitions and the Skills Show, Lauener is optimistic about the opportunities now available to those young people he has aimed to support throughout his career. “One of the great gains from recent years is that apprenticeships have had a far higher profile – and it is one of the reasons I am so committed to the skills competitions, raising the profile, and watching primary and secondary school children going around the Skills Show having lightbulb moments.”
Looking on the bright side
He adds: “I think that the situation is much better for young people in terms of the opportunities that there are than it was [in the 1980s] in the MSC. There is a much wider range of opportunities – and I think the new work that is being done on the Sainsbury routes will make a difference.
“The implementation of that will be an enormous challenge, but I am an optimist about the future. It is a much better future and set of opportunities than young people faced at the beginning of my career. It is also great that apprenticeships are equally available for adults.”
When he was asked to step in at the SLC, it caught his interest immediately, he says: “The SLC is a fantastic organisation and is delivering extremely well for its customers. We deal with about one in four households, and we have got a loan book of £112 billion that we manage for government. Looking after money is all about proper systems. I never see any of it, you will be pleased to hear.”
He stresses the majority of customers that apply in time receive their money before the beginning of term. “So most people don’t have any problems at all – and customer satisfaction is improving. We are improving our service year on year.”
But despite being interested in his new role, retirement will beckon eventually, he insists. “I am going to retire from the executive, absolutely definitely. I am not going to apply for the [SLC] chief executive post.
“I will do a couple of things that I really care about in the non-executive sphere, but I need more time for other things.”
For now, walking the West Highland Way is the short term goal. “May is the best time – before the midges get going.”