Lynne Sedgmore, CEO, 157 Group
Lynne Sedgmore, CEO, 157 Group

When Lynne Sedgmore passed the 11 plus, it made the local news.  Few children from her council estate went to grammar school, and that year, she was one of four to make it. “I was brought up on one of the most problematic miners’ estate in Newcastle-under-Lyme,” she says.

“If you were a Crackley kid you didn’t have any chances or hopes really.”

But Sedgmore was “born wanting to learn” and, from an early age, made sure there were always plenty of books in the house. “My mum always used to say ‘Lynne would ask for a book rather than sweets,’” she recalls.

Her parents, both originally from South Wales (or “pure Valley” as Sedgemore puts it) saw education as “the way out, the way to a better life.” And while money was tight, her mum’s “magic” financial management meant the family always had an annual holiday and the latest technology.

“They [her parents] made sure we had the best we possibly could. So as well as being the first to have a telly or a new car, we were the family who people on the estate looked up to. We were well respected and well liked on the estate.”

I have always been the person who says ‘Can I do that?’ or ‘I’ll have a go at that’”

Going up to secondary school – Clayton Hall Grammar School for Girls in Newcastle-under-Lyme – was a life changing experience. “Until then, I didn’t realise how poor we were,” she recalls. “The amount of money some of my friends had to spend was unbelievable, when, from the age of 14, I used to work to bring in extra money. A whole other world opened up for me about how much other people had.”

The experience also opened her eyes to a range of cultural experiences – the theatre, literature, classical music and even new foods. “I remember the first time I had corn on the cob and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I had to watch what everyone else did before I ate mine,” she says, laughing.

But being one of the only kids on the estate to go to grammar school had its downsides.”I used to have to wear a maroon cap with little bobbles on them, so there were times when they [others kids on the estate] would nick it, pull the bobble off and give it me back,” she recalls. But mostly, she was able to take it in her stride. “If I had been a very timid, small person, I might also have been bullied, but I am not exactly a small, fragile, petite person, so I could definitely hold my own. I think I lived a kind of double life in that way.”

At school, she was good at sport and “always managed to be in the top three” academically, but her rebellious streak stopped her from being head girl material.

“I had a tendency to challenge authority if I couldn’t see a reason for it and I remember thinking I would never be head girl because I caused too much trouble.”

Nevertheless she went on to study English and American Literature at Kent University, thinking she might like a career as a probation officer. “I always had this idea that I wanted to give something back, if you like, to the friends I’d left behind when I went to grammar school,” she says.

When she fell pregnant, during her second year of university, and everything changed.  As she was already engaged to the son of a vicar (Sedgmore got engaged when she was still at school), there was no question of doing anything else but getting married. “I remember going home for the weekend and going back to uni and everyone going ‘so what did you do this weekend?’ and me going ‘Oh I went off and had a big white wedding.”

Sedgmore took her final exams when she was five months pregnant and after a year out after her daughter was born, went back to university.

While combining motherhood and study “wasn’t easy,” she completed her degree and went on to do teaching qualification at Madeley College in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Unable to get full-time teaching work (her local authority had, at the time, just made 200 redundancies), she fell into a job as a youth opportunities programme (YOP) supervisor and immediately “fell in love” with further education.

“I was working with lads on the canal towpath scheme – the kind of youngsters I had grown up with and people didn’t really get,” she says. “But what I found was I had an almost natural ability to know how to work with them and I just loved it. I knew I had found home and since that day I have never wanted to be anywhere else but FE.”

When her husband was offered a job in London in the early 1980s, she applied for a job at Croydon College as a life and social skills lecturer and her FE career really began to flourish. A few years on, she was a senior lecturer and had discovered a talent for “spotting a new trend, writing and getting grants in” for new projects.

As well as Youth Training Scheme (YTS) pilots and community training programmes for unemployed adults, she was also involved in setting up so-called ‘accredited training centres’ where people from industry were trained to deliver their own training in the workplace. “We trained all the British Rail drivers in life in social skills tuition – it was such good fun,” she recalls. “I have always been the person who says ‘Can I do that?’ or ‘I’ll have a go at that’ so I really came into my own.”

By 1986, she was director of marketing at Croydon College (having left and returned after an unhappy 18 months at Hackney College as head of curriculum and student services). She went on to become dean of Croydon Business School in 1989, at a time when colleges “were really beginning to take higher education seriously.” While she says being a principal, “is the best job in the world.”

Sedgmore only did it for six years – at Guildford College – before taking on the role of chief executive at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) which was four years of “incredibly hard but enjoyable work.”

But the merger between CEL and the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) was a challenging time, and after thirty years in the sector, Sedgmore was planning to retire and move to the country. Then the offer of the job at 157 Group came along and totally revitalised her.

What I believe 157 can bring to the sector that is distinctive, is a way of working collectively to generate new kinds of business models, new ways of being flexible and lean, and offering something back.”

Now 55, Sedgmore says she has no imminent plans to give up work, but she is excited to have found her retirement home – an old chapel in Somerset, complete with its own graveyard. While she hasn’t “got round to living there properly yet” (she rents a flat in Guildford where she lives during the week), she is excited about her new home, which is currently undergoing renovation work.

When she is not working, Sedgmore is a “besotted grandmother” to her two grand daughters, who are eight and five. She also has a strong interest in spirituality. Although her own upbringing was not in any way religious, she is fascinated by different faith traditions, is ordained as a interfaith minister (which means she can present ceremonies like christenings and offer  spiritual guidance), is currently a student in the Ridhwan School (a  form of spiritual teaching) and has studied the Enneagram (a method of analysing personality)for 20 years. “It’s not about beliefs for me or imposing anything on anybody, it’s more about the reality and how you become the best possible person you can be,” she says.”

Sedgmore describes herself as a “pathological” optimist. She is endlessly enthusiastic about the different roles in FE over her 30 year career, with the exception of Hackney College, which she says was “not a can-do culture” and she found very de-energising.

“It was around the time when the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) was being disbanded and the college was struggling on 14 different sites.

I did my best and I think we did some good work, and we had an excellent team there, but it just wasn’t for me – so I went.”

While things have undoubtedly been tough for colleges in recent years – particularly in terms of budget cuts – there is a “real window of opportunity” in FE at the moment, she says. “The Coalition government is listening to us and giving us the kinds of freedoms and space that we have been asking for – for a long time.

“What I believe 157 can bring to the sector that is distinctive, is a way of working collectively to generate new kinds of business models, new ways of being flexible and lean, and offering something back.

“Because the 157 mission is a benevolent one, it is about serving the sector. That’s not to say there are not lots of excellent colleges that are not in the 157 – I know that there are – but we happen to be a particular forum where those ideas and think pieces and new ways of working, particularly around the curriculum, and serving learners, can go to that new space we’re in. For me, it’s all about shaping the future.”