The Principal of South Thames College talks to FE Week
“We are heading towards the edge of a cliff, which we’re going to fall off,” says the principal of South Thames College, describing the on-going funding crisis in further education. Strong words perhaps, but Sue Rimmer speaks from a vast amount of experience in the sector. It would be unwise not to listen.
Raised in Birkenhead, Sue says she had a happy childhood. Growing up, her father worked in a factory and her auntie lived just around the corner. The area has mostly been knocked down now, making way for modern redevelopments, but back then it was a stable community.
“It was the type of environment where you walked to primary school and you weren’t that far away from the secondary school. I simply wasn’t aware of anything different,” she explains with pride.
Aged 16, Sue left secondary school with Grade 1 CSEs, quickly snapping up a job as a pharmacy technician at Clatterbridge Hospital. Within a year she had moved onto the research laboratories at Unilever, a “strange environment” with different peers.
“I was with middle class girls who hadn’t got the A-levels to go to University and were waiting to get married and have kids. So I found myself in a slightly strange environment where I didn’t quite fit.”
The opportunity to do an ONC at her local FE college came from work, but Sue decided to drop out in the first year, later embarking on an eclectic mix of O-levels and A-levels. By her mid-twenties Sue had “got into her head” that she wanted go to University, and with little inspiration, she decided to pursue being an educational psychologist, based on the preconception that they “earned a lot of money”.
Although Sue stayed in Liverpool to study her degree, by this point she had already moved away from home. The decision, acceptable by most modern standards, was frowned upon at the time.
“The only reason you left home was to get married. So nobody could understand why I was leaving home and not getting married. I broke the trend.”
University allowed Sue to study psychology, sociology and education, but perhaps more importantly than that, it was where she met, her husband, Andy Wilson, principal of Westminster Kingsway College.
“At the end of my second year, I went along to this Union meeting where the new president stood up, and I thought, well, he’s quite nice,” Sue says.
A plan was soon set in motion. Sue was in charge of organising the end of year sociology party, and cleverly decided to book Andy’s band, ‘Chokey Bill and the Rampsmen’. The pair started dating on the night of the party and have been inseparable ever since.
Graduation steered Sue towards a profession in the public sector. With little interest in neither higher education or the schools system, Sue quickly decided to try an FE teacher training course in London.
A mature student herself, Sue then developed an interest in adult returners and access courses. Despite her working class background, Sue says was unprepared for some of the people she would meet.
“I hadn’t experienced anybody, who I was aware of, who were gay and I hadn’t experienced discrimination. The scale of the abuse that some of these women, who I was tutoring and who must have been older than me, it was, it was quite an eye opener for me.”
Education is a route out of deprivation, and it was this potential for change that really ignited Sue’s passion for adult education.
“I was a fairly passionate person anyway, but I became very passionate about how these women could change their lives through education. It was a route out of difficulty for them, and so I got very, very involved with it.”
Sue climbed up the ladder in a number of London institutions, spending time as a lecturer at Lambeth College, an equal opportunities coordinator with the Greater London Council (GLC) and a coordinator at the Open College of South London.
“I’ve always tried to do everything I did really well. I‘ve never planned any of the next stages. If an opportunity crossed my path that seemed to make sense, then I’ve taken advantage of it.”
The chance to step into management came along unexpectedly, when a principal asked if she would be interested in taking over an ageing site in Kennington.
I thought, well if I don’t apply for the job and somebody gets it that I don’t like, then I’ll always wonder…”
The campus was like a blank canvas for Sue, allowing her to build new facilities, including a new library and canteen, on a shoe string budget. Soon everyone wanted to be taught on her campus. It wasn’t long before the principal of Carshalton College noticed her phenomenal work.
“When they put me in Kennington, they expected me to run it reasonably efficiently, but they were actually really surprised how I’d made it the centre that everybody wanted to go to. Therefore they wanted me to apply for this job, which I applied for and got.”
Moving to Carshalton was the step that pushed Sue up into senior management. By this point Sue had moved away from the teaching profession, realising she could have a bigger impact further up the career ladder. While appreciative of her increased influence, Sue says she misses the immediate feedback from teaching in further education.
“When you’re that close to the ground you get immediate feedback. You’ve made a difference to this person’s life, rather than, a more dispersed impact on a lot of people’s lives.”
Sue didn’t look back though. Some years later Sue moved to South Thames College as deputy principal. When she arrived, the institution was sat in the bottom ten per cent of the country. Just eighteen months later, when the college was judged to be ‘satisfactory’ by Ofsted, a five year plan was drawn up to improve the college. It was then that the current principal, aged 63, decided it was an appropriate time to retire.
“I hadn’t expected her to go so quickly. But I thought, well if I don’t apply for the job and somebody gets it that I don’t like, then I’ll always wonder…”
As principal, Sue has spent the last decade giving the college an incredible makeover, tackling the college’s financial difficulties, merger proposals and crumbling buildings with the utmost vigour.
“My approach has always been that if you’re taking on students who are coming from a deprived background, particularly the younger students if they’ve already failed before, then you basically have the obligation to give them the very best opportunity you can.”
Sue Rimmer has experienced a lot in further education and by the looks of it, she has no plans to stop any time soon.