The new chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) talks to FE Week
With no previous background in education, Ruth Spellman says she isn’t the most obvious candidate for the job of chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA).
But she comes to the role – her fourth CEO position – with 40 years of management experience under her belt. And as the first female chief executive of the Association in its 108 year history, she hopes to be able to use that, and her own experience of how education can change people’s lives, to shape the future of the organisation.
The fourth of six girls, Spellman says she led her three younger sisters into “all sorts of trouble”.
Instead of following in the footsteps of her older sisters, who were both educated at girls’ schools, she went to a mixed comprehensive, which is where her dad liked to joke that ‘the rot set in’, “You know how kids ask why? Apparently I did it to a ridiculous extent and drove everybody crazy,” she says .
Spellman put her natural curiosity to good use, excelling academically at school and winning a place at Cambridge University to study Economics – which wasn’t all that common in the town of Pontypool, in South Wales, where she grew up.
Her lecturer father (who later became a college principal) was determined for his daughters to be successful and make the most of any opportunities that came their way.
“He was very keen for us to not just be content to swim along, but to actually maximise our talents and abilities,” she recalls. “I do remember him saying ‘the biggest waste of all would be to waste your talent’.”
A “mousey” teenager who loved reading, the young Spellman had her sights on a career in politics and, eventually, a ministerial role. But she is glad she chose not to pursue her political ambitions, she says.
I said ‘what do you mean it behoves women not to wear trouser suits?’ He said ‘we don’t like it and we don’t allow it’”
If her 40 years in business have taught her one thing, it is that MPs are not as influential as it seems. “You can be a backbench MP and not really influence anything…but knowing a lot of people in the relevant departments and working on policy issues – that way, you can influence things and make things happen and that’s pretty much where I have focused my attentions and efforts.”
She was very aware – from a very early age – that having a fulfilling career was important to her. She recalls: “I didn’t want to just get married and have kids. I was very aware of women and girls who didn’t achieve their potential and there was a general appreciation that it was only by using your brains that you could really change your social class.”
But it didn’t take her long to work out that women can have a much tougher time climbing the career ladder. While she enjoyed the role, Spellman left her first job at the National Coal Board after realising she wasn’t going to be offered the opportunities she was looking for because “basically the only people that got promoted in the mining industry were people with mining engineering degrees and men in general”.
And during the decade she spent working at the National Economic Development Office – whilst bringing up three small children – she became acutely aware that her gender could be the reason she hadn’t been “tapped on the shoulder” for promotions as other colleagues had. “I am pretty sure that was because I had children and it was regarded as unsuitable for me.”
She recalls one particular episode, in the late 1980s, when a senior colleague asked her to stop wearing trousers to work. “I said ‘what do you mean it behoves women not to wear trouser suits?’ He said ‘we don’t like it and we don’t allow it’,” she says, crossly.
I was very aware of women and girls who didn’t achieve their potential and there was a general appreciation that it was only by using your brains that you could really change your social class”
But her hard work has not gone unrecognised. Having also held senior roles at the NSPCC, Investors in People and the Chartered Management Institute, Spellman was awarded an OBE for services to workplace learning in 2007.
“I like to think it’s because I made a difference,” she says. “Some people object in principle to honours but I have to admit I didn’t…I just went for it.”
Her tenacity, and her ability to stand her ground is, at least partly, the result of endless family debates around the dinner table, she says.
“I was taught really to articulate my views and express myself and I found that fantastic.
“I used to really love debates because I like the whole business of you can’t prove someone right or wrong and you have also got to understand the other person’s point of view.
“I think that trying to see it from the other person’s point of view is very important and whichever job I have done, I have always tried to think that actually, not everybody will see it in the same way, so what I have tried to do is to win consensus and to get a belief in what we are doing.”
It is a skill she hopes to put to good use in her new role at the WEA, she says, and her vision is of an organisation that gives a lot more back to its members. “It would be great to see the WEA offering more through an e-membership proposition through e-learning opportunities for people in their own homes.
“I’d also like to see schools open at weekends for adults. It’s a charity with a difference and the job just ticks a lot of boxes for me. It’s a challenge and I think my expertise and background will bring a slightly different flavour to the organisation.”