A few months after completing a creative arts degree at university, Liz faced two potentially life-defining job offers at the same time. Did she take up the artistic director’s post at the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre in London or a full-time post at a London-based FE college where she’d been teaching creative arts part-time?
Liz’s family tradition of working in public service prevailed; and she’s been in FE since 1993. “I just knew the young people I was meeting, particularly in FE, had not had my opportunities or background - and yet they were fabulously creative, even though they had spent their whole school careers being told or made to feel they‘d never amount to anything. We’d just do creative things - read Shakespeare, do Pinter, open up young people’s imaginations. That’s what FE has always been about for me, why I’m still here and can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Liz’s FE journey started in a London college before she landed her first management job at Lewisham College - one of the “most formative things” in her career. She was hired by Lewisham’s then principal Ruth (later Dame Ruth) Silver who once described Liz as her ‘professional daughter’. Ruth became one of Liz’s key role models. “I still carry things with me that she’d pass on - like her definition of ‘complaint’ - ‘a poorly expressed desire’,” says Liz.
That line of thinking has been seminal in the way Liz aims to fulfil her leadership role as deputy principal. “It makes you ask what do those making a complaint really desire? It takes the anger out of a situation and helps you reach a resolution much more quickly. It’s really helpful when I’m working with people who are angry, but also plays a role in my coaching and mentoring.”
While at Lewisham, Liz felt she was genuinely working for Ruth: “I wanted to do what she was setting out for us as a college. Lewisham was a really deprived borough and Ruth specifically hired a housekeeper to ensure the college always looked wonderful and showed off its art collection that was put up on classroom walls and corridors to let students experience art - that was really transformative for me.”
And then there was the pianist from Canada. “Ruth gifted me this wonderful classical pianist who got in touch - she’d come over once a year and give a classical music concert at the college — I used to bring construction students along to attend them and, although at that moment they probably hated me more than anything else, I have a saying - it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, but it does matter that you’ve experienced it. Then it holds no fear for you.”
After more than six years at Lewisham, Liz moved northwards to become a director at New College, Nottingham, then took on consultancy work for sixth form colleges before moving as principal to Barnsley Sixth Form College in 2015 and then deputy principal at the larger Barnsley College, where she was initially responsible for curriculum and now for culture, place and communities.
Liz continues to be galvanised by Ruth Silver’s innovative approach to FE: “I’ve just wanted to change the lives of our young people,” she says, “and now as a senior leader at Barnsley I also want to help improve the lives of the staff and community I work with.”
This approach lay behind the launch of the college’s first menopause cafe - an initiative ideally reflecting Liz’s practice of what Ruth Silver still preaches - not to write anyone off.
“I realised we were seeng women of menopausal age gradually disappearing not so much physically but in terms of how they were seen. I encourage everyone to say ‘menopause, menopause, menopause’ three times a day. But my priority is ensuring our college and other organisations I work with know that change has happened. We’ll give our menopause policy to any interested organisation. It encourages people not to write others off just because they are going through a normal physical change. It happens and it’s fine.”
The initiative is about guidance to managers to ensure women are not thought of as any less brilliant during or after menopause than they were before. On a practical level, the college lends out fans for people to place on their desks and has installed full-length mirrors in accessible toilets. The menopause policy is ‘owned’ by a male vice-principal. “Those kind of things are normalised now,” she says.
In fact, the inspirational approach to leadership Liz has taken with her from Lewisham College has helped create a sea change in general student attitudes at Barnsley. “My students at Barnsley Sixth Form College were among the nicest I have ever met but I was struck by their lack of ambition - people were getting Oxbridge grades yet no one was applying for places as they felt it just wasn’t for them. We’ve now turned that around and transformed how students think about their journey towards technical qualifications or higher education. It’s no longer about Barnsley being no good but being an absolutely brilliant place to be!”
“I’ve always wanted to try to change things,” says Liz, who recalls key times when she has made a stand against entrenched sexist attitudes - and sometimes also missed opportunities - to make a point. “It’s vital that other young women joining the sector - staff and students - see themselves in the people who work with them, teach them, and look after them.”
In one college, she’d dyed her hair blond and wore eye make-up for a business card photo when one of the senior male staff intimated she could make a lot of money with her looks. “It was inappropriate and I’ve kicked myself ever since for not saying something. But I suddenly thought if that can happen to me - someone not afraid to push back - what about others with less confidence? Now my job is to make sure those kind of things never happen. I encourage staff to always make an active challenge.”
Liz recalls at the end of an otherwise all-male meeting that the tea things were left on the table. “I really objected to the idea that the all-female cleaners would be expected to clear up after us and cleared up myself. Then one week I chased after my colleagues and said: ‘I’m not your mother, you all need to come back and clean those tables with me.’ I never had to do it again but I did have to do it the first time. It’s about actively creating that cue for them.”
How would Liz advise anyone considering teaching in the sector or those seeking promotion? “Always know who your ‘mucker’ is. When your stomach drops, who do you pick up the phone to? Who’s the person you’d call when you’ve completely messed up? If you can find the right people, you can have a fulfilling career in anything.
“You need people you can trust wth similar values, who understand you are capable of greater things if you ever thought you weren’t, and who will also tell you when you are not being greater than you thought you were! They’ll say no, you haven’t messed up or yes, you have - let’s work out how you’re going to get out of this situation.”
Liz also warns against groupthink: “Ensure the people you relate to are diverse in their experiences and backgrounds.” And she strongly advises women entering FE “not to think the things that make us women are less important than things that make men men.
“Women have sometimes been accused by male colleagues of over-nurturing as a way of trying to make us more hard-edged. And I’ve often had male colleagues who’ve felt internally that it’s much easier to deal with something if you don’t bring your heart into it. I think it is all about heart and head and if the heart is not there what’s the point? We can all get more money and an easier life somewhere else. Education and FE in particular is all about heart.
“I always say we’re going to love our students to death. It doesn’t mean we’ll go easy on people - we’ll be rigorous and disciplined - but we’ll do it with absolute crystal clear love because that is a genuine emotion. Women should not be frightened of genuine emotion. Nurturing is a powerful thing and I expect my colleagues to nurture as I do.”
Liz believes education is what really transforms society. “It’s not just about getting students ready to service employers’ needs but wanting your students and colleagues to have the best life - not just the best job - they can have.”