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Trenchant man from north of the Trent

Over two decades, David Lyon's no-nonsense approach has utterly transformed Chesterfield College - if only London's media would take notice. Steve Hook reports

DAVID Lyon flicks through his diary, reflecting on the last few weeks of his 29-year career as a college principal, and reluctantly admits "it does feel a bit strange".

These are revealing words from a former university boxing champion who doesn't take kindly to discussing "personal stuff" with the media - a policy he has stuck to over his time as the longest-serving further education principal in England and Wales.

Dr Lyon, 65, says he would rather journalists from "south of the Trent" (a favourite phrase) took a bit more interest in FE success in his part of the country.

"It seems people only take an interest when you retire, when you die, or when they think you've got your fingers in the till."

Admittedly he says this with a grin, and his tone suggests he is kidding, up to a point. But he is justified in using the word "success".

When he became principal of what became Chesterfield College in 1979, it specialised in engineering, a trade that had previously promised working men a wage that would support a family.

With the demise of traditional industry in this northern tip of the East Midlands, the college could have withered on the vine.

But, under Dr Lyon's stewardship, the college has not only survived but, through diversification, flourished academically and financially. It now has 2,600 students.

The college was given grade one ("outstanding provision") for quality assurance in its Further Education Funding Council inspection for 1999-2000 - an honour it also achieved in its previous 1995 inspection - and grade one for student support and art and design.

All of which brings Dr Lyon back to his favourite theme - the London bias of the media.

"The provision in Chesterfield is as good as any but, as it relates to a medium-sized town north of the Trent, we have never received the same publicity as more fashionable London colleges."

Dr Lyon has spent all of his working life in education. He won't say where he was born, ("I don't think that's relevant") though he confirms it was indeed "north of the Trent".

His Scottish father worked as an electrician in Clydeside and his mother was from Wallasey, in Merseyside. He was educated at grammar schools in Liverpool and then east London, going on to become a "reluctant" natonal serviceman in the army for two years, an experience which he says "always seems a good idea for other people but not for yourself".

He went on to study public administration and social science at Nottingham University, also winning the national lightweight university boxing championship.

His first teaching post was at a secondary modern in London's east end at the beginning of what he never imagined would be a long-term career in education. After this, he served as an education officer and teacher in Kenya.

His spell as an FE lecturer then took him to Nottingham, Derby and Essex. In 1971, he became the youngest FE principal in the country when he took over Grantham College in Lincolnshire. After becoming principal of Chesterfield eight years later, he oversaw its merger with the neighbouring art college in 1984.

He has no regrets about leaving the classroom for management. "I suppose I decided I would like to influence events," he says. "When I first started as a principal I did teach but found I was called out of classes."

One course of events he won't be able to influence will be the future of his college under the new Learning and Skills Council.

It will be up to his successor, vice-principal Ian Murray, who takes over the top job in September, to make sure Chesterfield's wide range of study survives the council's focus on skills relevant to the workplace.

But Dr Lyon, who kept his ship on a steady course through convergence and incorporation, is confident that FE will always be about more than simply supplying a skilled workforce.

"There might be some rationalisation," he says. "There is the question of the autonomy of colleges, although I think the local skills councils will try to find ways round that, for instance by offering more financial incentives for engineering and no financial incentives for French.

"But if students can't do French here, they will go to Sheffield.

"It is difficult to interfere with people's choices. In the end, it is the demand from students which will determine what we offer."

That demand means the range of activities on offer at the college includes engineering, art, childcare, communication studies and first-year degrees, run with Sheffield Hallam University.

And Dr Lyon is not just a provider of lifelong learning.

He recently gained an A-level in Spanish - a subject that he intends to study to degree level in his retirement.

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