Frank McLoughlin, principal, City and Islington College
Frank McLoughlin, principal, City and Islington College

By his own admission, Frank McLoughlin wasn’t a particularly academic child. “I can remember this old nun putting her hand on my head and saying to my mum ‘Francie isn’t very clever, not like his brother.’

“And I was thinking ‘My God – I am standing here, you know.’”

But growing up in Harlesden in the 1960s, which was largely populated by big Irish Catholic families like his own, he didn’t dwell on it.

Most people went out to work straight from school and going to university was virtually unheard of.

After failing the 11 plus, he went to a Catholic secondary modern in north London, where he struggled with authority and was “quite a lippy young person really.” When he left school, he got a job in a factory and spent the next seven years doing a variety of unskilled jobs including delivering sausages for Walls and a stint as a travelling salesman. His experience of higher education, he recalls, was limited to chatting to university students doing summer jobs in the factories where he worked.

I got the idea that I might want to be a teacher because all the mature students I met there were the product of FE colleges and it just shaped my view about what it can do for people, how it can guide you in all sorts of ways.

It was only when he started dating a girl who was studying at Leeds University that he started to think he might be quite clever, after all.  With her encouragement, at 22, he started ‘A’ levels at night school and, after achieving top grades, landed himself a place on a politics degree at Leeds University. For McLoughlin, who had become very involved in politics, both general and through the trade unions, one of the biggest highlights was being taught by Ralph Milliband, who was a professor there. “I was a big leftie – so it was very radical, questioning, a real ferment of ideas and I had three fantastic years. “

It was during his time at Leeds that McLoughlin first started to appreciate the power of further education. “I got the idea that I might want to be a teacher because all the mature students I met there were the product of FE colleges and it just shaped my view about what it can do for people, how it can guide you in all sorts of ways.”

After university, he taught part time at various London Colleges, working primarily with “young disaffected, underachieving young people” (what would now be known as NEETS, he says) before landing a full time job at North London College in 1981. The college incorporated in 1993 and became City & Islington College and he worked his way up the ranks, becoming principal in 2002.

McLoughlin says he never set out to be a principal or planned very far ahead at all. “If you have a very explicit career plan in stages, you’ll get disappointed with that, whereas if you’re someone who says ‘I’ll give that a bash’ it usually works out much better.”

Having helped his institution on its way to becoming an outstanding beacon college and the only one to be awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize (which rewards excellence in further and higher education) twice, he has, arguably, done far more than ‘have a bash’ at being principal at City & Islington College. In 2009 he was awarded a CBE for his services to further education.

But despite his achievements, he remains humble and at ease with himself and seems as if he would be equally comfortable working on the factory floor as heading up a large college.

His own experiences of education have informed his work, but he acknowledges that life is “much tougher” for young people today.

“Going back 30 or 40 years, you could still get work, even if you had no skills. You could work as an operative in a factory and still get a fairly decent income as a machine operator. But those unskilled jobs you could just walk into have gone. So the message we have got to get across to young people is they must come and they must get educated.”

 There is a real opportunity here to build a technician class to support industry and address shortages in all sorts of skill areas.

The recent London riots, while not excusable, “did force a few issues onto the table” about what life is like for young people, he says, the main one being the issue of worklessness. “It is too simple to say this was just good time rioting and looting. It is too simple to say it is all the fault of the social (benefits system)…but what I do think it has brought to our national attention is that we have huge swathes of young people not in work or training and something like three million workless households. We need long term solutions to employment and the government knows this. We need to get people skilled and qualified and help them become employable.”

But he thinks the current education system has a lot to answer for. He is scathing about academic selection “which puts a stamp on people and says ‘you’re a failure’ and the way the education system has become geared up to producing people to do A levels and go off to university.

“It shouldn’t be a choice between ‘A’ levels , failure or work-based apprenticeships. There is a real opportunity here to build a technician class to support industry and address shortages in all sorts of skill areas.”

The loss of EMA has been a blow, but McLoughlin is keen to point out the college never used it as a “recruitment tool.” While he doesn’t expect to see a dip in enrolments this year, what does concern him is retention. Young people are still enrolling, but when the cost of travel, books and other expenses starts to mount up, will they be able to last the course?

Around 80 per cent of City  & Islington students were entitled to the full EMA and, despite the college putting in £250,000 of its own money to subsidise the new EMA replacement fund “there is simply not enough for a weekly entitlement” he says and students’ needs will be assessed on a case by case basis.

After 30 years in FE, McLoughlin, who is also chair of the 157 group of colleges is still full of passion for the sector that “gives people second chances” and has the ability to transform lives. Over the coming year, he wants the college to “be responsive and grow” expanding its range of apprenticeships and higher education opportunities, including securing foundation degree awarding powers.

What never ceases to make him feel proud, he says, is seeing students wandering around Islington wearing their ID lanyards. “The fact they don’t take them off shows how proud they are to be part of the college.”