Paul Phillips, principal, Weston College
Paul Phillips, principal, Weston College

Wrestling fan, booker of TV celebrities and former disco promoter — it’s a picture of North Somerset principal Paul Phillips that not many will recognise.

Mention instead the honorary doctorate of letters from Bath Spa University for promoting higher education in FE, an Ofsted additional inspector’s post, or the 13 years he’s spent at the helm of Weston College and the 55-year-old is more likely to come into focus.

If not, then talk of his 2011 OBE should mean the name springs to mind. Phillips got the honour for services to FE and the voluntary sector, but almost missed out.

“I had a letter from Her Majesty’s office before saying I was being considered for an award but I hadn’t actually opened the letter straight away — it looked to me as though it might be a tax demand,” explains the father-of-two.

“It certainly looked like it could be a bill, so I put it to one side and didn’t open it for a few days, not that I don’t open bills.

“I was in shock when I opened it. I showed it to my partner, Julie, and she said ‘wow’.”

The revelation is one of the rare moments that Phillips slows in interview.

Forthright and forthcoming on, for instance, how his college has just won a £10m prison learning contract for 13 institutions across the South West, he becomes more reflective, but no less informative, when covering matters closer to home.

Having appeared in the press positively over stories such as the prison learning deal and the college’s new autism centre, he’s also made it into newsprint as the man behind college job losses and so could reasonably be expected to be cautious.

But the slowing down has more to do with pride at the award of the OBE and the keeping in check of emotion over his grandfather, Bert Lasseter, and father, Kenneth Phillips.

“My grandfather would have said that OBE stood for ‘other bugger’s efforts’,” he jokes.

“But I was pleased and very touched by it. I’m not touched by very much to be honest, but I was touched by that.”

He continues: “I wish my dad had been alive to see it really, because he was definitely an inspiration for me.

“He was trained as a carpenter and decided he wanted a career in dentistry so went to night school and did his A-levels and became a dental technologist at the University Hospital of Wales.

“He would have enjoyed my OBE because, really, he should have had that. It was a very poignant moment in my life.”

The underlying modesty is likely a family trait.

I appeared on the front page of the local newspaper week after week with people questioning what I was doing”

It was Phillips’ “down-to-earth” grandfather — the man behind Phillips’ ongoing love of all things English wrestling and the superstars-of-their-day such as Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy — who said of his PhD in cost benefit analysis: “What’s that? Paperhanging and decorating?”

The qualification — preceded by a Cardiff University degree in maths, statistics and economics, and a masters in economics and law of education — was followed by a job at the Ministry of Defence where he worked on computer-aided command systems.

But while there he was asked to “help out” teaching maths in a local technical college.

“I was pretty committed that I wasn’t going to go into education and that I was going to be in the world of industry, but I did it for a couple of weeks and I got absolutely hooked — line and sinker,” says Phillips, who lives in Penhow, between Chepstow and Newport.

It was a turning point and soon he applied for — and got — a maths lecturer post at Coleg Gwent’s campus in Pontypool, just north of Newport.

Eight years later, in 1990, and having risen to the post of senior lecturer, Phillips became vice principal at the college’s Ebbw Vale campus.

“If I ever lost sleep it was over that job,” he says.

“There was significant unemployment in the valley and the college was dilapidated to say the least.”

He adds: “One of my first jobs was getting the community in, but I remember thinking ‘how do I do that?

“At the time we had Gladiators on the TV so I managed to get in touch with the TV programme and they agreed they’d send one along, and I got hold of Timmy Mallett from TV. We also got one of the cast of Eastenders in, all for an open day celebrating what the college was doing.

“In addition, I brought wrestlers in, but unbeknown to me the company who organised it decided to bring female wrestlers, so the local paper ran a story along the lines ‘scantily-clad women encouraged into learning environment’.

“But it served the purpose and even more people flocked down.”

The college “turned around,” before Phillips moved onto become overall vice principal of Coleg Gwent in 1994.

“It was probably the job I enjoyed least because I was vice principal of a college that had five campuses with at least 30 miles between some of them – it brought the message home to me that big isn’t always beautiful,” he says.

“Sadly, my marriage was breaking down at the time and probably the job had a lot to do with it. I was having to put phenomenal hours in.”

But in 2000, Weston beckoned the rugby-loving Welshman.

“I wasn’t that keen at first as I was happy with my lot, but as vice principal I could never really set an individual journey for an institution,” says Phillips.

“But the challenge was there — Weston wasn’t doing particularly well financially and it didn’t have a good reputation in the community and the curriculum construct was very poor.

“I decided the only way to deal with the problems was a complete restructure. I removed seven of the eight heads and started from scratch.

“There was significant publicity and I appeared on the front page of the local newspaper week after week with people questioning what I was doing.

“I’m sure there are still some people out there who would rather I had never come to Weston because there were very difficult decisions that had to take place.

“But we’ve grown significantly ever since — from an £8m turnover to about £32m this year and next year we’ll be £43m to £45m.”

The success sees Phillips now head a 7,500-learner college looking at opening a fourth campus in the near future, that Ofsted rated as good in 2008.

But achieving outstanding isn’t necessarily next on his radar.

“I could make Weston very easily a tertiary college and very easily achieve outstanding, but that wouldn’t be what the community wants,” he says.

“The community wants everything. It wants that outstanding provision for academic, but it also wants the same for vocational and it also wants the bespoke learning for those who haven’t had the same chances that I, and others have had. That’s what the outstanding college is to me.”

He adds: “In my younger days I thought I’d seen all aspects of life and nothing was going to shock or change me.

“I ran a disco in Cardiff and had loads of other jobs and thought I’d seen the world, but when you go into some of the deprived areas with massive learning difficulties and you go into the prisons, you see how privileged your upbringing was and you see what these people do and you see them succeed, it’s just fantastic.”

 

It’s a personal thing

What’s your favourite book? 

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

What did you want to be when you were younger?

A steam train driver

What do you do to switch off from work?

I enjoy going to watch the rugby and professional wrestling

If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, living or dead, who would it be?

Cheryl Cole, Alex Ferguson, The Queen, Norman Wisdom, Morecambe and Wise and my dad

What would your super power be? 

I would like the ability to look at somebody and immediately assess their potential — in fact, I might already have this super power