Having worked in journalism, teaching, public relations, consultancy and even as a mini cab driver – including a spell driving the actor Kenneth Williams to the Shepperton film studios – notgoingtouni.co.uk’s national education director Peter Cobrin has had the ultimate portfolio career.
Raised in Brighton, where he enjoyed an idyllic childhood and developed a lifelong love of Brighton and Hove Albion FC, Cobrin attended the Brighton, Sussex and Hove Grammar School.
But after being one of the highest achieving boys in his prep school, grammar school came as a shock. While his fellow pupils were “intensely hard-working,” Cobrin was far more interested in playing football and cricket.
Nevertheless, he secured a place on a general arts degree at Manchester University, writing articles for the Jewish Gazette in his spare time. He left after two years, to take a full-time job on the paper and spent the next six years working in journalism and public relations. But his final job – on the Investors’ Review – convinced him that Fleet Street wasn’t for him. “I am quite happy to get home in the evening, have a meal, sit down with my wife, watch television, go for a walk, and this late night boozy culture wasn’t the world I wanted,” he recalls.
At 29, Cobrin swapped Fleet Street for a degree course in International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE) and spent the next five years studying and working as a minicab driver, writing many of his essays in his cab while waiting outside studios and offices for his clients – many of whom were actors and advertising executives.
Having completed his degree, he was doing some private tutoring with students from the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle (an independent school in south Kensington, London), when he was asked to fill in for the head of history for a few weeks. Despite having no formal training, he ended up staying at the school for 14 years.
While he loved teaching, Cobrin found it physically and mentally exhausting. He left in 1993, fearing he was heading for burnout. “I think I was tired,” he says. “If you are teaching properly, without respite, and without any other people teaching your subject, you’ve got no cover, and I could sense myself at times on auto-pilot. I mean, no-one else would have realised it, but I knew it.”
Having developed an interest in IT, Cobrin spent the next decade doing a mixture of IT consultancy, PR and marketing – in the UK, US and Israel, where he relocated in 1995.
On his return to the UK in 2003, he wanted to return to teaching, but unable to get a job in a state school without a formal teaching qualification, he enrolled on a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) in IT at Liverpool Hope University.
Afterwards, he worked as a supply teacher across the north west, including one of the worst performing schools in Salford, which proved to be a big contrast his days at the Lycee Francaise. “Half to three-quarters of the teachers were on supply, there was a resident policemen and the school was due to be knocked down in the summer. I didn’t do a lot of teaching, but I did do an awful lot of quite effective classroom management,” he recalls.
After several years of supply and short-term contracts, Cobrin was head-hunted for a project management role at Building Schools for the Future (BSF), the previous government’s flagship school re-building programme, where he spent eighteen months working in Southend, providing consultancy to support schools, construction and IT companies, and architectural firms.
The day, in July 2010, when Michael Gove announced the end of the programme – with immediate effect – is firmly imprinted in his memory.
To have to send them an email to say, ‘Sorry guys – it’s over. You’re not getting any money, you’ll never get any money, sorry to have wasted your time’…it was a shattering experience”
While he acknowledges that the programme wasn’t perfect and probably “over-ambitious and certainly overcomplicated,” seeing young peoples’ hopes and aspirations shattered was devastating for everyone involved and brutally mishandled, he says. “When you have spent a year-and-a-half working with a select group of schools, discussing their aspirations for their new resources and facilities…to have to send them an email to say, ‘Sorry guys – it’s over. You’re not getting any money, you’ll never get any money, sorry to have wasted your time’…it was a shattering experience.”
Without “even a pencil to sharpen,” he resigned immediately and returned to his consultancy work and convinced Spencer Mehlman – a former BSF colleague who had gone on to found notgoingtouni – he could be its national education director.
His latest venture, Apprenticeships England – a forum for those involved in the delivery of apprenticeships – that started as an open LinkedIn Forum in 2010 has now grown to over 2,400 members. The group’s first conference – held in London last week – attracted over 200 delegates, including employers, training providers, colleges and those working at government agencies
The popularity of the group, co-founded by Lindsey McCurdy, who has a strong background in training and employer engagement, could be down to its independence. “We are not the AoC, we are not the AELP, we are not a membership organisation…what we seem to be is the platform of choice for people who have issues and concerns about apprenticeships to express them,” he says.
Last week’s conference centred around what Cobrin believes are the priority areas for apprentices at the moment – the gap in independent careers advice and guidance, ensuring training is consistently of high quality and getting the message out to employers, parents and young people about the benefits of apprenticeships.
Many young people are still unaware that higher education is not the only route to professional success, he says. In many of the schools he visits through his work for notgoingtouni, young people are not hearing anything about apprenticeships until their first year of sixth form studies – at which point many feel it is too late to pursue the vocational route.
“The real issue is that everybody should be educated and trained to enable them to maximise their potential. That’s the core point. What is the right way for that to be achieved is not a one size fits all. There are probably too many universities chasing too many mediocre students, and the question is…what is the value of a mediocre degree from a second-rate university? We know what it costs – it costs almost the same as a great degree from a great university.”
What doesn’t help – and this is something he has raised with its chief executive Simon Waugh is the National Apprenticeship Service’s insistence on referring to apprenticeships as a brand. He explains: “A successful apprentice has worked as hard and deserves the same status and credit as does that first class honours degree from Oxford; different path, equal value. We need to improve the perception of apprenticeships, which means improving the quality of apprenticeship delivery, weeding out the cowboys and weeding out the Mickey Mouse apprenticeships.”