Reading rules: Sir David Bell on a lifetime in education
Sir David Bell is rightly proud of the University of Reading's campus. Its 134 hectares of parkland are adorned with an eclectic blend of libraries, lecture halls, sports facilities, halls of residence, bars - everything a thriving university community requires. And thriving it is - ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world, it enjoys a well-earned reputation for teaching, research and enterprise. All in all, it's easy to see what tempted Sir David to become its vice-chancellor - a role he took up in 2012 after six years as the top civil servant in the UK's Department for Education.
The practical reality of the job has also met with his approval. “Coming here I've enjoyed being more of a decision-maker than I was before,” he admits. “I never felt it frustrating or constraining at the time and I'd spent six years having direct responsibility for the functioning of the department. But the ultimate decision-makers were the politicians - and rightly so - with my principal role being to advise, rather than decide. I didn't find this frustrating; I knew that was the job and I really enjoyed it but maybe frustration is something you see in retrospect, rather than at the time.”
Teaching impact …
Another bonus of his new role is that it has allowed him to return to his roots, teaching occasional courses in constitutional law and politics, among others. His student audience, though, is a far cry from the primary school children he used to teach when he first embarked on his career in education some 30 years ago. Bell, however, is keen to stress that this initial teaching role was one that enabled him to make a real impact.
“As a primary school teacher of kids aged between 5 and 11, quite literally on a day-to-day basis you could see the impact in growth and development,” he recalls. “And although I'd like to think that I've made an impact in different ways in different roles, I think the most direct impact I've ever had on other individuals was as a teacher. I think I felt it still when I was a head teacher of a primary school - I was just that one step removed but I still had direct impact.”
University, too, gives the opportunity to make a similar impact, he believes. “There are fewer barriers in the way and also, in a single institution you would hope to be having a sustained effect over a period of time, whereas when you are in policy or other national roles, you're having an impact but it is much more indirect. I don't do day-to-day teaching and I don't do the research my colleagues do but what I can do is shape the environment to make sure those things are done successfully. Again, you can do that at a macro-level but this has been tremendously energising.”
Bell - whose other roles include serving as chief executive of a county council and a school inspector and then chief inspector of schools - is blessed with impeccable people skills. “I've always said that being a primary school teacher for a number of years and then a head teacher was a great preparation as you couldn't stand on your dignity,” he says. “You had to work with everyone from a five-year-old child to the school caretaker or the parent or the director of education. I've always tried to treat people in a very even-handed way. It doesn't matter who you are or what you're doing.”
But is it possible to actually teach these character traits? “I can't believe that education doesn't help, but at the same time it is also clear that some people are more disposed towards acting in a people-focused way,” he reflects. “Yes, you need knowledge but you also need people to be able to deal sensibly with other people; to be flexible, have persistence, use evidence and so on. This is not the only university that spends time thinking about how we can develop those skills in the core curriculum, and identifying the supplementary activities that can give students more experience. But by the same token we don't want to undermine the academic element of what students are learning - it's about getting the balance right.”
Governing impact …
Of all the policies that Bell was involved in during his time as the UK's top education civil servant - a period that spanned a Labour Party administration and then a coalition government - perhaps the most controversial was the decision by the coalition to treble university tuition fees to £9,000 a year. Now fully exposed to the ramifications of the decision, Bell says that it has had a number of different effects.
“Remember, it's still early days,” he points out. “The first class paying £9,000 a year haven't even graduated yet. But there have been a number of changes in students' approach since then. For example, the most radical request from last year's student union was for the library to be opened 24/7. And there have been lifestyle changes, with students now more likely to go clubbing once a week rather than more. Alcohol consumption is clearly down and there is greater demand for study space.”
The extra cost has other implications, he continues, saying that students are now more focused on what they receive in return for their investment. “My view is that there are moments in the process where students are overtly customers - the point at which you select one university over another is a customer decision,” he says. “And there are aspects where students are customer-like - when they are using facilities - but it is too narrow to think of students simply as customers. Students themselves are quite resistant to the term as well, arguing - righty - they are ‘contributing' to the university. Students are not complaining about the fees themselves - they have factored that into the cost of living. What they are most concerned about is the cost of living - maintenance, food, transport and so on.”
On a more personal level, however, Bell cites two examples of where he made the biggest impact - first, as chief inspector of schools. “I was always really keen to remind inspectors that they don't teach in classrooms and they don't run schools,” he recalls. “But there was one area where we had real impact and that was on schools in special measures - when they have fallen below acceptable standards. Here, we could see real improvements and real transformation take place. That kind of impact on schools where youngsters weren't always getting the best education filled me with pride.”
And the second example stems from his role at Reading. “There was a student who we had to suspend for a year for a disciplinary problem,” he explains. “We very nearly removed him altogether and I told him ‘you're right on the edge'. He subsequently graduated with a first class honours degree. We decided to give him that opportunity to stay, he took it. You would never get that level of impact in a public policy role. And that's not only what makes it such fun, but it's also real impact” - something that Bell is clearly well placed to keep on achieving in the years ahead.
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