Someone once described me as ‘an entrepreneur with public sector values’. As soubriquets go, I’ve been referred to a lot less flatteringly; I also think it’s a pretty accurate description of me too. Looking back on my professional career in further education, (which dear ‘younger’ readers began in1975) it is evident to me now that I sometimes did things that would be considered enterprising and innovative - although I never thought of this at the time.
Origins of the Women’s Leadership Network
One such example was the setting up in 1990 of what is known today as the Women’s Leadership Network http://www.wlnfe.org.uk/ The group of inspiring women Principals now leading WLN, including Jackie Grubb and Mel Lenehan, supported by a stalwart amongst former FE Principals, the human dynamo known as Pauline Odulinski, recently reached out to me through that magic web of connections that is LinkedIn. They invited me to do a podcast in which, amongst other things, I explain how and why the organisation was set up and why I believe it is still relevant and much needed today - thirty years later. You can listen at WLN #FEWomenspeakly: Ann Limb on Apple Podcasts
In this blog, I go into a bit more background for the benefit of today’s generation of FE leaders and for the historians of FE!
ETF’s predecessor - FESC
The stimulus for the establishment of a network of women working in FE was an international conference on equality, promoted by the sector equivalent of today’s Education & Training Foundation (ETF). The then Further Education Staff College (FESC), or Coombe Lodge as it was affectionally known on account of its location in a glorious part of the rural South West, together with Local Education Authorities (LEAs) worked with European counterparts (those were the days my friends!) to mount a conference in Vienna which brought together educationalists from a range of countries working across the public sector to examine issues of equality of opportunity for women.
The backdrop to the Vienna conference was the ground breaking equalities legislation in Great Britain that was enacted from the 1970’s, beginning with the Equal Pay Act of 1970. This was followed in 1975 by the Sex Discrimination Act which made it illegal for people to be discriminated against on the grounds of their sex and saw the creation of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) with its statutory powers to help organisations enforce the Act. Then in 1976 came the Race Relations Act which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, nationality and ethnic origin and led to the establishment of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) with parallel powers to the EOC. In October 2007, these all became part of today’s single equality body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission1 that oversees the nine main pieces of equalities legislation that have been introduced since 1970.
Further Education Colleges, until incorporation in 1993, were part of an LEA which had the responsibility for ensuring colleges operated within the law. However, as we all know, compliance with the law is a blunt instrument when it comes to changing behaviour and organisational culture. Furthermore, LEAs differed enormously in their interest in and commitment to their local FE Colleges and staff development for employees and quality assurance of the curriculum, as we know them, today scarcely existed systemically. There were few ‘ sector wide’ initiatives designed to build capacity and any management and leadership training on offer usually came through the Further Education Staff College or an enlightened LEA.
It fell to FESC therefore, working with LEAs, to present on a bigger stage a system-wide response to the changing equalities environment in Britain - and the Vienna Conference was a mechanism for sharing our practice and learning from our European counterparts. At this time, there were two local authorities in particular that led the way on equality of opportunity for women in the work place and both were prominent at the Vienna Conference. These were the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) under the leadership of Neil Fletcher (1987-1990) together with Lancashire County Council’s dynamic Education Committee Chair, Josie Farringdon, created a life peer in 1994.
The Vienna Conference December 1990
They were joined at the Vienna Conference by a small contingent of women from FE and other local authorities. Participants included me as Principal of Milton Keynes College, together with one of my then Deputies, Sally Dicketts, now CEO of Activate Learning. I know Nicky Perry, a former Adult Education Inspector and then Director of Beyond Standards until 2017.
It was from this illustrious gathering of women in FE that the idea of creating a network for women working in the sector was born. I can’t claim to be the sole ‘midwife’ to the concept, but I do know that I strongly upheld the notion and that I led the actions that ensued. The first of these was a get together of women at Coombe Lodge in July 1991. Astonishingly (sadly even) I retain, in my personal FE archives, the pages of my Filofax which record the event. I also recall driving to Somerset with Sally to meet up with women who had been at the Vienna Conference, together with a range of other women working in FE whom we either knew or had identified as likely to be interested and supportive - ‘plus ca change’, I guess.
The group that met in July 1991 at Coombe Lodge included some women from the Dragongate. This was an ILEA inspired informal women’s group set up by former FE College Principal and former CEO of 157 Group, (now CollabGroup) Lynne Sedgmore in the mid 1980’s. I had been invited to join when I became Principal of Milton Keynes College in 1987. At the time, there were but a handful of women in the entire country who were college principals, vice principals or heads of department in adult or further education - and a greater concentration were in London and the South East. A small group of us (usually 6-8 women) met 4-5 times a year in a restaurant in London’s China town called the Dragongate the name by which the group became known. In addition to enjoying a good meal, we swapped anecdotes, shared experiences, exchanged ideas and generally put the world to rights...it was a self-help therapy group and friendship circle - and for me it was a professional life line, a positive and practical example of collective feminism in action. We once held a weekend ‘ working residential’ at a hotel in Sandbanks ensuring that we gave ourselves a longer time to listen, learn, laugh - and attend to our well-being in the pool and spa!
‘Deeds not words’
The combination of the formative experiences of Dragongate and the profile of the Vienna Conference created the conditions for the establishment of a sector wide network for women working in adult and further education. I returned to work in July 1991 and the organisation initially known as the Network for Women Managers in FE was born. Milton Keynes College provided the admin support and I coordinated the work of other colleagues who volunteered to take on roles to spread the word. We didn’t have a ‘strap line’ but I guess, on reflection in retrospect, we were all probably subconsciously living out the maxim of our suffragette forbearers ‘deeds not words’ - direct action (but without civil disobedience!) We were united in our commitment to making a difference for women throughout adult and further education and recognised that we needed more than the equivalent of an ‘old boys’ network to do this.
The desire to extend ‘a hand up’ as well as ‘a helping hand out’ to all women is what drove us in the early days and remains a common characteristic of today’s WLN. I was energized and encouraged at the recent WLN Board meeting I attended to witness such high levels of shared openness, diversity, warmth and inclusivity - and this is reflected the activities and ambitions of the WLN today. I urge everyone to look at the website, attend events and lend whatever support you can. All colleges should be involved. My own vision for the network when we set out (pre Association of Colleges/CollabGroup days of course) was to have all colleges and adult education centres as members - since women staff and students are found in all colleges. This should remain an ideal to be striven for even in these heavily cash strapped days when corporate membership fees have to be vigorously contested and justified in budget setting meetings.
The need to invest in, develop, and inspire women students and staff in adult and further education is as strong as it was thirty years ago. WLN recognises this and is currently investigating ways in which it can collaborate with others across the sector and beyond to honour and celebrate all diversity in adult and further education (in keeping with the changed legislation between 1970 and today). In my view, our sector can never have too many ‘celebrating achievement’ events - as the recent glittering and heart-warming joint TES FE and AoC Beacon Awards demonstrated. So why not a ‘Diversity in FE Awards’ event (mhm...now there’s a thought...watch this space…. the public spirited entrepreneur might be at it again....)
1A new Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010. The Equality Act brought together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single Act. Combined, they make up an Act that provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all. The Act simplifies, strengthens and harmonises current legislation, providing Britain with a discrimination law which protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society.
The nine main pieces of legislation that merged were:
• the Equal Pay Act 1970
• the Sex Discrimination Act 1975
• the Race Relations Act 1976
• the Disability Discrimination Act 1995
• the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003
• the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003
• the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006
• the Equality Act 2006, Part 2
• the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007