Mention the Learning and Skills Council, and most people scratch their heads. You could explain that that this is a body with hundreds of staff, the budget of a small African state and a central role in supporting the British economy. But it probably won't help. No one knows what the LSC is, even though it is responsible for the whole of post-16 education (apart from universities) and roughly 4 million students.
Mark Haysom, 49, and a newspaper man, hopes to change that. Formerly managing director of Trinity Mirror's national newspaper division, responsible for the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, Haysom is about to become the Council's new chief executive. In doing so, he finds himself handling a £8bn budget and more than 400 further education and sixth-form colleges, not to mention ministers' strategy for re-skilling the British workforce, outlined in the recent "21st-Century Skills" white paper.
A public-sector job with a salary of £180,000 might seem a soft option to a man like Haysom, particularly after the cut-throat world of newspapers. He certainly had a tough time at the Mirror group, which has continued to lose out to its News International rivals like The Sun. He ended up saddled with some of the blame for a price-cutting strategy that failed to halt the slide in the Mirror's circulation. And in the shake-up that followed the arrival of Sly Bailey, the new Trinity Mirror chief executive, he got the boot.
But if national newspapers are tough, the world of further education is a quagmire. Already the fledgling LSC is in deep. After just two years of existence, it is distrusted by ministers and disliked by the colleges it is supposed to manage. Whitehall is demanding to see results, while the further education colleges charged with delivering them complain of muddled thinking and poor communication from the Coventry HQ. The outgoing chief executive, John Harwood, is leaving a year before his contract is to be renewed, blamed in some quarters for an ineffective and occasionally autocratic spell in charge. An alternative school of thought says that the job, described as "horrible" by one of the people canvassed to take it over, is just impossible.
Much has been made of the fact that Mr Haysom is from the private sector, in contrast with his predecessor who, as a former chief executive of Oxfordshire County Council, is rooted in the public sector. This is no accident, judging from comments made recently by Bryan Sanderson, the LSC chairman responsible for hiring Mr Haysom: "There's a public sector ethos around which is very worthy, but it also puts constraints on the speed with which you can do things," he said. Dealing with business, moreover, is to be a key part of the chief executive's job, because ministers want the world of commerce to be more directly involved in further education at local and national levels.
Mr Haysom is well aware of concern about his lack of public sector experience which means that, for example, he has never had to deal with the politicians whose support is now crucial. But Sanderson and the LSC are confident that the management skills they are looking for are generic, and that Mark Haysom has plenty of them. This is a view shared by his fans at Trinity Mirror who say he did little wrong there - other than to be part of a regime which fell out of favour. One editorial executive describes him as a clear-thinking, unruffled operator likely to succeed wherever he is put.
If true, this is good news for those who depend on the LSC for funding and leadership. As a senior manager in the world of further education administration puts it, task number one is to make the Council function properly as an organisation. A major staffing overhaul is already under way. Describing some LSC documents as "Victorian" in tone and content, the colleges want a simpler, less bureaucratic relationship with their funding body, and a stronger sense of leadership. "We have welcomed the steps he has taken to improve its effectiveness, cut its costs, reduce the burden of bureaucracy placed on colleges and move towards a relationship of trust," said the Association of Colleges when John Harwood's departure was announced. "However, there is still a great deal to do."
The rambling nature of the LSC, which has 47 divisions, is felt to be part of the problem and here Mark Haysom's time at Trinity Mirror - itself a huge and devolved organisation with a wide range of publications - may come in useful. In the longer run, the sector is desperate for recognition. While the Department for Education and Skills is agitating for good news about its skills drive, the further education world wants to hear good news of almost any sort. University students are rarely out of the spotlight, yet colleges get almost no publicity. They are badly neglected, says David Gibson, outgoing chief executive of the AoC. "Colleges, which are the major component of the LSC's responsibilities, are the largest provider by far of learning and skills into the national economy, yet so much of what they contribute towards the nation's prosperity remains undersold." He is not alone in hoping Mark Haysom can exploit his media background to the full.Reuse content