‘If someone says I can’t, I ask why not?’
David Hughes is anything but the new kid on the block in further education. He has spent almost 20 years working in the FE and skills sector, first at the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and then the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). Most recently, he oversaw the relaunch of adult learning charity Niace as the Learning and Work Institute.
In September, Mr Hughes will take on another of the biggest jobs in the sector when he replaces Martin Doel as chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), which represents more than 350 colleges in England.
‘Colleges are essential’
Throughout his career, Mr Hughes has been driven by a desire to strive for fairness. This trait was instilled in him by his parents – a clerk and a dinner lady – during his upbringing in London, he tells TES.
“We were brought up to believe in ourselves, so I always felt privileged but not affluent,” he says. “That gave me the chance to look out for people and strive for fairness. So that has always driven me.
“What I have always wanted to do is give people choices. The reason I have been involved with further education colleges in the last 20-odd years is because they are often essential for giving chances to people. They are essential to our societies and communities, and they are now having a difficult time.”
Mr Hughes is confident that his wealth of experience should stand him in good stead in his new role, particularly with huge changes ahead after the area reviews, which are expected to result in “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient” colleges, and the devolution of skills funding.
“I understand about the local. I have worked regionally and nationally, so I have an understanding of the system from different perspectives and I know a lot of people,” he says. “Hopefully, I will bring a bit of continuity from the past, because there has been a lot of experimenting in the time I have been in the sector, and this is another attempt to improve the system.”
Determined to leave school to find work as soon as possible, Mr Hughes’ own educational journey looked set to end at 16. He enjoyed school until he hit puberty, but then became disaffected and wanted to leave. “I hated being told what to do and started having arguments with teachers all the time,” he recalls. “I was really disruptive.”
Following in the footsteps of two of his brothers, who had secured jobs in the banking sector, Mr Hughes applied for a role at the Bank of England. After a day of tests and interviews, he was offered a job, but was advised to remain in school to complete his A levels first, and even move on to university – something no one in his family had done.
“That was the only bit of careers advice I ever listened to,” he recalls. “So I went back to school and did a deal with them.”
The arrangement involved the school turning a blind eye if he arrived late or left early, and setting up a new PE diploma course. The school agreed; he flourished. “I then really enjoyed sixth form because it was on my terms,” he says.
Then, when members of his family suggested that people like them did not go to university, it was like a red rag to a bull. He went on to win a place to read geography at the University of Cambridge. He explains: “That is my biggest personality flaw. When someone says I can’t, I go, ‘Why not?’ ”
Mr Hughes admits, though, that he felt out of place at Cambridge. “I don’t think I’ve ever fitted in anywhere,” he says. “It is one of my biggest fears that I may fit in somewhere – in the sense that I don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
While he enjoyed the educational opportunities at Cambridge, he struggled with some of the traditions and presumptions, and spent “most of the time fighting”.
“College life was just full of sexism, elitism and things I really hated,” he says.
‘Excited and optimistic’
Later in his career, at the LSC and SFA, Mr Hughes gained a reputation as a troubleshooter. He was brought in to sort out a series of disasters, ranging from the failure of the education maintenance allowance payments system to the collapse of the college capital investment programme.
He insists that he is “excited and optimistic” about his new role at the AoC, despite the difficulties the sector must overcome. “The colleges are facing huge challenges, but also great opportunities,” he says.
Mr Hughes is optimistic about the future of 16-19 provision; he believes the Sainsbury review, which is expected to be published this summer, will bring more of a focus on technical and professional skills training.
The devolution agenda is another positive development, he says: “The understanding of the role of the college in a region or a city is much stronger at local level and the task is to turn that into proper partnership.”
As far as Mr Hughes is concerned, colleges will need to evolve in the new skills landscape, but they still have a vital role to play. “I think there will be colleges in 20, 30 and 40 years,” he says. “They will look a bit different, but the sector is not at risk.”
CV: David Hughes
1971-77 Martin Primary and Junior School, London
1977-84 Woodhouse Grammar School and Sixth Form, London
1985-88 BA (Hons) in geography at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
1989-90 Cooperative housing officer, Riverside Housing Association, Liverpool
1991-93 Development officer, Tenant Participation Advisory Services, London and Bristol
1993-94 Coordinator, Federation of Housing Cooperatives, Perth, Australia
1995-96 Deputy chief executive officer, Western Australian Council of Social Service, Perth, Australia
1997-2000 Chief executive, Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service
2000-11 Various roles, including national director, Skills Funding Agency and Learning and Skills Council
2011-16 Chief executive, Niace/Learning and Work Institute