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A leaving speech

I stopped being chair of governors of The Sheffield College at the end of March 2021, after a 45 year connection. Here's the short speech I gave to an online staff meeting.

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The invitation to speak caught me by surprise. It really is an honour. Today is my first day since 2008 without a Sheffield College role. To explain: 

In 1976 I did teaching practice here. In 1979 I got a permanent job here. In 2002 the College dismissed me as redundant. In 2008 the College appointed me a governor, on my second attempt. Until yesterday I was chair of governors. 

I’m going to talk about how I feel about the College, and then to offer three reflections.

What is a 45 year association with one institution like?

I’ll start with three snapshots: 

It is 1979

After teacher-training I’d worked for two years as a part-timer, cadging cars from friends to get between Chesterfield, Cleethorpes, Manchester, Scunthorpe, and Sheffield.  I’m being interviewed for my dream job as a Lecturer Grade 1 in Trade Union Studies at Granville College. As a part-timer I had often worn a so-called Chinese rickshaw driver’s jacket. And Doc Martens. Once I’d henna dyed my hair. Anxiously waiting after my interview I was called back by the panel: “We’d like to offer you the job: but only if you agree to smarten yourself up, put on a collar and tie, and wear a decent pair of shoes.”  Of course I swallowed my pride and said yes.  

Still 1979, it is my first team meeting

I’m wearing my new smart clothes. We are planning the coming term. Unknown to me, something is on the way up the inside of my trouser-leg. I shift my position. My knee sears with pain. I yell. I  reflexively start to hit my knee to kill whatever thing has done this to me. Next I tear off my trousers, to make sure that the thing - formerly an Autumn wasp - is dead. Rather anxious laughter ensues. I feel sheepish. My new colleagues look worried. Who exactly have they been landed with?

The 1980s now 

It’s the lunch break. A three-course student made and served meal in the subsidised staff restaurant. Over a  three-term cycle you could experience most of the culinary curriculum - including lambs’ brains au gratin. Afterwards there’d be coffee in the staff lounge, sort of “at the feet” of the Principal, the aptly-named Arthur Colledge, who was also the Regional Secretary of the lecturer’s union NATFHE. (Think about that for a minute….) Arthur, smoking his pipe, or knocking out the dottle, would converse intimidatingly with whoever was sitting nearby. The trick was to avoid catching his eye, to nod occasionally, but never to get drawn in, else you’d risk being made to feel a fool. 

As an aside, don’t do any of it Angela - not the pipe, not the dottle, not the intimidation.

Through these three snapshots I wanted to focus on what FE felt like at the time of my start in it.

But of course there’s a continuous “jostle” of other memories, of widely varying significance. Here are a few of them: 

  • the annual staff/student summer cricket match on Granville College’s sports ground out towards Fox House - land and pavilion bought by a speculator and even now slowly going to ruin; 
  • outright and unchallenged homophobia; 
  • the City Council’s correct 1980s plan to set up a fully tertiary system, fatally weakened from the start by the Secretary of State’s decision to retain school sixth forms in the south west of the City; 
  • guerrilla action by women staff taking down sexist calendars from male staff rooms; 
  • the huge changes in Sheffield caused by deindustrialisation; 
  • the giant, muddled institution that resulted in 1992 from the merger of Sheffield’s six FE colleges to form a Sheffield College nearly twice our current size, with over 100 locations; 
  • leading a bitter and protracted industrial dispute about our lecturers’ contracts; 
  • the creeping damage done by austerity over the last decade; 
  • a full-to-bursting City Hall Ballroom for the union-run (but everyone attended) annual staff Christmas social; 
  • the pain, anxiety and eventual liberation of being “restructured out” aged 50; 
  • the long period when “things were just not quite right in the College”, when pride in what the  College does had somehow ebbed away; 
  • my last three years here as chair during which we’ve all been engaged in turning the college around.

And I’ve ignored completely: 

  • the tough collective experience we are going through with Covid;
  • the long term harm the pandemic has done and will do to the fabric of the City; 
  • and the completely admirable way in which you have responded to the pandemic.

Before I finish, I have three reflections:

Firstly, what makes FE so special? Researcher Beryl Tipton became particularly interested in what she terms “the multi-purpose educational function of FE”She wrote, in 1973: 

“For in the heterogeneity of their educational and occupational backgrounds, its members of staff are probably unlike those of any other type of educational institution in the country”. 

She continued

“a college’s staff structure is almost a microcosm of the country’s social divisions featuring, as it does, all of the following: graduates and non-graduates; industrially experienced and non-experienced; craftsmen, white-collar workers, managers, social scientists and artists; men and women; and the relatively young through to the relatively old.” 

It was, above all, the heterogeneity, the incredible range in its workforce, that Tipton pinpoints, which made me excitedly feel at home as soon as I stepped into an FE college. It still does.

Secondly, what can make a college great? 

Above all it is its climate or culture. The vibe has to be rightThe way that all roles are vulnerably interdependent on each other must be always in the background. Nobel prize winner and arms control expert Thomas Schelling put it this way

“Most of what we call civilisation depends on reciprocal vulnerability.” 

I believe that what is true for nations is true for organisations and is true for individuals. As chair I have tried to put this value into practice; I think governors have tried to do likewise; and I know that Angela shares this approach too. 

Finally, why is change for the better sometimes so hard? 

Because we don’t get or give enough time for things to run their course. If you make bread it takes the time it takes. If you lay concrete, you know it takes time to cure. If you grow veg you know that plants take the time they take to fruit. There are things you can do to improve the yield; sometimes you have to act fast - when frost threatens, say; but nature has to take its course. So, to get The Sheffield College back from its 2017 brink onto its current upward trajectory has taken you, has taken us, has taken our students, the time it has taken. Should you be impatient for improvement? Of courseBut you must be patient too. 

To conclude: I wish The Sheffield College and you its staff, the very best for the future. From the side-lines, I know that I will see the College dealing with whatever challenges come its way; that I will see the College continue to go from strength to strength; that I will see the College, guided by a new strategy adopted yesterday by governors, being the anchor institution that the City of Sheffield needs and deserves.  

Thank you.

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