It’s not easy to lead 2,500 students and 250 staff, head up hundreds of local authority staff or train to be an accountant.
Yet Nic Dakin has done all three.
The 57-year-old has also taught English for 30 years, spent four years as principal at John Leggott College in Scunthorpe and was North Lincolnshire council leader during time out from education.
MP for Scunthorpe since 2010, he is a member of the Education Select Committee, works with 20 all-party parliamentary groups and champions campaigns such as No Free Lunch, which is pushing for free meals for disadvantaged students in FE and sixth-form colleges to bring them on a par with their peers in schools.
“My wife would say I work too hard,” says Dakin who met other half Audrey during his secondary school days in Birstall, Leicestershire.
“But there are always things to do. Perhaps that comes from an upbringing of trying to do things as well as possible, and an ingrained working-class approach to work.”
He is clearly driven by a determination to see equality and opportunity for all, although he is the first to admit that his journey has been “random” with no strict game plan.
“You get a job, do it to the best of your ability, and then another comes along,” he says.
“I would just like to see those who struggle the most with very low incomes, and whose lives are very challenging, have more opportunities — the same as those who drift through life in a privileged way.”
Dakin was attracted to politics because he wanted to try to “make a difference”.
And education is key, he says. “Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ resonates with me . . . politicians should trust educators more. It’s important to challenge and to hold to account, but forever changing things is not the best way to get the best for the young people of this country,” says Dakin.
In Finland and Singapore, countries with education systems often pointed to as very successful, he says there is a “consensus across political parties that they don’t forever change things”.
“They have a long-term view; their secretaries of state don’t think they know best what the history curriculum should be,” says Dakin, who studied history at the University of Hull before completing his PGCE at King’s College London. (He’d earlier studied accountancy, but gave it up after a year in favour of teaching.)
“This meddling of politicians, particularly the case with the current leadership, could debilitate schools and colleges. There needs to be a mechanism locally for people in FE to crack on with less interference. Local government is obsessed with what it can measure — why not just trust people a little more?”
Should local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) have more influence in education?
He says more resources deployed in partnership with the LEP at local colleges would allow it to be more responsive to what businesses need.
“I’ve chaired a skills commission for the Humberside LEP and it’s been interesting listening to what businesses have been saying — they want schools and colleges producing people with good literacy, numeracy and employability skills. It seems fairly simple.
“In the Humber we are hoping that jobs will take off in the renewables’ industry. There are some major planning applications through Siemens and Able UK that ought to bring tens of thousands of jobs to the region.”
But how will people be prepared for these jobs?
“Give LEPs a bit more purchase on what they’re asking of FE and schools and colleges, and FE will deliver,” insists Dakin, who had his first teaching job at Greatfield High School, a “tough” secondary in Hull.
He says campaigns such as the Association of College’s No Free Lunch illustrate the way FE is treated differently from the rest of education.
“It’s not fair and it discriminates against young people who choose to go to FE
post-16,” he says.
“I’ve done a lot to champion the role and quality of further education, particularly sixth-form colleges, where I worked most of
“They have done a cracking job over the years but are still a Cinderella in the system. Funding for 16 to 18-year-olds has really been squeezed and is hitting these colleges
hard . . . if this continues, we might have to question whether they will be able to maintain the quality of their work.”
Dakin, who has two daughters and a son, grew up in rural Leicestershire, the eldest of three boys and a girl. His father was a clicker in the shoe industry, his mother a nurse, who retrained to be a teacher.
Both his parents came from large families and were, he says, “intelligent, working-class people who were focused on education, behaving properly and good values. They were not materialistic at all.
“The things that I think are important are pretty similar, so I suppose the way you’re brought up does leave an indelible mark
Does he feel that this influenced his leadership style?
“The skill is getting the best out of everybody else,” he says.
“My view is that the leader’s job is to be clear about where you’re going. And there’s no point in charging off on your own — you have to get the best out of your team and take them with you. You have to value people.”
He says that when he was principal he would walk around the college every day to meet staff and to see what they were doing.
“I would challenge them to make sure that they continued to improve, but I would recognise and celebrate their successes as well,” he says.
“Sometimes in this country we’re not very good at saying thank you. It doesn’t take much but can be very motivating to hear someone say that.”
He says of all his roles, he enjoyed being principal most, “directly impacting on lives and seeing opportunities made” for young people.
“Working with young people is exhilarating,” he says.
“It’s never dull. The challenges come from being in charge of any organisation. In the college there were 2,400 students, 250 staff and a multi-million pound budget. The challenges were diverse and constant.”
As well as education, he is also passionate about the environment — sustainable housing, conservation and wildlife — partly inspired by the two years that he spent in Scandinavia teaching English as a foreign language.
“It was an adventure and I realised that things could always be different,” says Dakin of his time in Gavle, Sweden.
“The Swedes did things in different ways and we saw the world in a different way. Their interest and enthusiasm for the environment was overwhelming.”
For now, though, he remains committed to representing Scunthorpe. “The one test for me is whether my constituents think I’ve done a good job,” explains Dakin.
“We have to face the electorate and convince them we can run the economy better than the Conservatives.
“We’ve got to be clear where we’re taking the country — tackle the squeeze on living standards and make sure people can succeed, wherever they’re from.”
It’s a personal thing
What’s your favourite book?
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
What did you want to be when you were younger?
What do you do to switch off from work?
I play squash, go walking, watch films and listen to music
If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, living or dead, who would it be?
William Shakespeare, Hilary Mantel, Marilyn Monroe and Nelson Mandela
What would your super power be?
To have a magic wand that I could wave to solve the wide range of problems that people bring to me