100 years of women in FE and skills. Standing up for further education: Susan Pember
In the latest in FETL’s series on the women who shaped further education in the UK, we reflect on the career and service of Susan Pember, an FE teacher and leader who made the transition into government and policy
Susan Pember was born in Pontypridd, South Wales, in 1954. Her father was a disabled ex-miner and her mother, a factory worker who did evening classes to learn new skills. Pember harboured early dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer. Speaking in 2014, she told how at primary school she had written an essay expanding on her dream of life as a competitive swimmer and her plans to support the training through a career as a self-employed hairdresser. Her head teacher, disappointed by the scope of her job ambition, told her to write the essay again. She did, this time setting out an ambition to become a teacher. Although she did it to placate her head teacher, she stuck with her newfound ambition and never looked back.
After finishing school, Pember enrolled on a certificate of education course at Glamorgan College of Education, on Barry Island. She was guided by the college towards a degree course, eventually graduating with a bachelor of education degree from the University of Wales. Her specialisms in textiles and geography led her to a first teaching job at Redbridge Technical College in London, where she taught textiles, fashion and clothing from 1977 to 1983. Although her training had prepared her for a career in primary/secondary school teaching, as soon as she set foot in the college, Pember knew this was where she belonged and wanted to spend her career. ‘You felt you could make a real difference to these young people and adults’ lives,’ she said later. A job at Southgate College in north London followed, this time as deputy head and lecturer, a first senior role in which she stayed until 1986.
Pember was soon offered another leadership position, which took her away from the classroom for a time. She took on a policy role within the education department of the London Borough of Enfield, working for the next four years as senior education officer for further and adult education, career and youth services. In 1991, she became principal of Canterbury College, where she would remain for the next nine years. In that time, she also studied part-time at the University of Hull, gaining a doctorate in business administration. This course gave an underpinning academic rigour to the business strategies she was pursuing at the college and shaped the analytical skills she was to need in her future career. Her success as a college leader was recognised with an OBE for services to education in 2000 and, in 2003, with an honorary doctorate from the University of Kent in recognition of her work in increasing higher education participation in Kent.
She left Canterbury College to take up her first job in national government as part of the leadership team commissioned to implement David Blunkett’s Learning Age Strategy. Pember’s appointment prompted the Guardian to wonder whether government was ‘finally taking basic skills seriously’. She was charged with developing a strategy to help 7 million adults improve their literacy and numeracy skills and establishing and leading the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit. The resulting Skills for Life programme went on to be one of the largest government-led social intervention schemes. Between 2001 and 2011, more than 14 million adults participated and 8 million achieved qualifications. The strategy laid the foundations for programmes being offered today and established in statute the right of adults to an entitlement to free literacy and numeracy provision. The legacy continues with over 500,000 people participating annually.
In 2004, Pember was charged with conducting a government review of apprenticeships. The review made a number of groundbreaking recommendations, including the proposal that new apprenticeships should be available to learners from age 14 and include adults. It made a persuasive case for increased investment in apprenticeships and proved a springboard for the rapid expansion in the provision of apprenticeships. The agenda still being pursuing in Whitehall over a decade later.
For over 13 years, Pember worked in government on behalf of the FE and skills sector. As well as making evidence-led recommendations, championing reform and providing insight to politicians and other senior civil servants who, in most cases, lacked direct classroom and sector experience, she worked through a period of tremendous organisational turbulence within Whitehall. This saw numerous changes in departmental names and responsibilities, from the Department for Education and Employment to the now expired Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and regular changes in senior personnel. Over her time in office, she worked directly with more than ten FE and skills ministers and eight secretaries of state.
Leaving government in 2013, Pember worked as a consultant and change leader in the sector, concentrating on supporting learning organisations and government departments to improve their governance and quality processes while, at the same time, campaigning for adult learning. She also took up governance roles and became Vice-Chair of Bedfordshire University. In 2015, Pember returned to sector leadership as Director of Policy and External Relations of HOLEX, the lead professional body for adult community education and learning. In a blog post for FETL, she described revitalising adult education as ‘the new leadership challenge for the sector’. Adult and community learning providers, she wrote, are ‘our unsung heroes and, by hook or by crook, we need to create the political circumstances for them to use their skills and knowledge to educate and retrain more adults. This is the new sector leadership challenge. If we don’t speak up who will?’
Few leaders in the further education sector can boast Pember’s combination of chalkface experience and policy knowledge, gained in almost every part of the sector and at different levels of government. She remains one of its most respected and articulate advocates. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated the value of having leaders in key policy roles who know and understand the impact of policy initiatives on the ground. Through her role with HOLEX, she continues to make a case for increased investment in further education, and for adult education in particular, and for greater recognition of the sector’s key role in promoting both personal fulfilment and economic prosperity. The need for such a voice has never been more keenly felt.