Wisdom of youth

At 37, Verity Bullough is the youngest regional director of the Learning and Skills Council. Neil Merrick meets a woman destined for the top

The first time Verity Bullough met Mark Haysom, the Learning and Skills Council's new chief executive, he told her that it was vital to change the age profile of the organisation. Whereas private companies and parts of the public sector are appointing increasingly younger managers, senior LSC personnel tend to be in their late forties or fifties - a reflection, Bullough says, of the tradition in education of moving up the promotion ladder.

When the LSC unveiled its new team of regional directors last month, just three out of 10 were aged under 50. But Bullough, who celebrated her 37th birthday this week, is waving the flag for the next generation of leaders. She is one of two regional directors in London, having for the past three years been the executive director of London North LSC - a post won against competition from, among others, the chief executive of one of the old training and enterprise councils.

Bullough exudes self-confidence without sounding boastful. "I'm good at my job and never assume that, just because I'm younger than everybody else, I'm not a credible candidate," she says. Wherever she worked, she always seemed to be one of the youngest senior managers. "One day I'll walk into a room and there will be lots of fresh-faced people, but it's not happened so far."

London North, employing 70 staff, is one of 47 local learning and skills councils that report to the main council, based in Coventry. As part of Haysom's efforts to inject new life into the organisation, there are now 10 regional directors, most of whom double as executive directors of an LSC.

Bullough worked at the awarding body City and Guilds for three years before spending most of the 1990s at North West London TEC and then North London TEC, ultimately as the director of strategy. When the TECs were abolished to create learning and skills councils, she jumped at the chance to take one of the posts. "It sounded like a fantastically interesting job. No organisation had previously been given the opportunity to plan post-16 education and training strategically in the way an LSC can do."

North London LSC has an annual budget of more than £180m to fund nine FE colleges, 46 school sixth-forms and 40 other learning providers. "The sheer intellectual challenge of the job is phenomenal," she says. "Once you get to this level, you need to get out of bed in the morning for something that is intellectually stimulating."

Bullough is usually in her office by 8am and rarely leaves before 7.30pm. Her day's work may include talking to a college principal about a capital project or liaising with business leaders.

Asked to name her most satisfying achievement since 2001, she points to controversial proposals to close four school sixth-forms in Haringey and open a new sixth-form centre. The fact that the plan angered some parents does not faze her. At least more people in Haringey are now aware of the LSC. "In my opinion, the LSC was set up to do interesting things. Tackling these issues creates an opportunity for the LSC's profile to be raised."

Bullough accepts that, like other LSCs, London North has some way to go before it is as well known as the four boroughs it covers. To increase awareness, its offices include a careers centre where people can drop in to find out about learning opportunities.

Bullough speaks to some college principals almost daily, and others perhaps once a week. Her interests include climbing and hill-walking, but she has not been a learner for more than 10 years, when she gained a grade two certificate in Turkish. "I started grade three, but I could not keep awake in the classes. I was working such long days." But what would she like to learn now if she had more time? "I wish I had some practical DIY skills," she responds. "It would be wonderful to do something that used a different part of my brain."

The LSC's new regional structure has generally been well received. John Brennan, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, says it reflects the fact that colleges offer learning to regional and even national markets. "Many LSCs have been very parochial in their outlook," he adds.

At regional level, Bullough's title is operations director - in effect, number two to Jacqui Henderson, the new director for London. Given that Henderson is nearly 30 years older, there is bound to be speculation that Bullough is being groomed to take on the top job. "People are looking at my performance very closely," she says. "I have a lot to prove, which is the way that it should be. I've got a good track record, but only in one particular area of the capital."

Still, Bullough was asked to move from London North and, later this year, will combine her regional post with that of executive director of London Central LSC, whose area covers seven boroughs and which has about twice the budget. "Maybe I'm in a bit of a comfort zone [in north London]. Maybe I need to be a bit more challenged."

As her home is a few feet inside Islington, she will be executive director of the part of London in which she lives. "My neighbours are my customers. That helps to concentrate your mind. You may well take a decision that affects the boy next door."

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