“I hated school with a passion, hated going every single day and even now don’t look back on it and say those days were the happiest of my life like a lot of people do,” says Graham Morley, Chief Executive Principal of South Staffordshire College.
Being the youngest in the year, disliking football and in the top set for everything, he never felt he fitted in at Oldfield Boys’ School in Uttoxeter. Despite his academic aptitude – particularly in maths – Morley “did one piece of homework in four years” and left school without a single qualification.
He started a carpentry course at college, but having decided he didn’t like the teacher, switched to bricklaying and found he was pretty good at it. On completing his apprenticeship, he joined the family construction business where he worked until his mid twenties, picking up higher national certificates in building and structural engineering along the way.
But despite having a close relationship with his dad, Morley couldn’t shake the feeling that he should “cut his own path in life.” A keen surfer with who was determined not to become the “and sons” in his father’s business, he took a part-time job teaching bricklaying at Stoke College.“I found I was a good teacher and I’m not embarrassed to say that,” he says.
After combining part-time teaching with construtction work for a few years, he decided to take a risk, accepting a full-time teaching contract, covering a teacher who was on long-term absence. But when his colleague returned, much earlier than anticipated – just two days after Morley’s eldest daughter was born – he suddenly found himself out of a job.
Having made the decision to move out of the family business – and disappointed his father in process – it was a devastating blow. But despite the tough economic climate, Morley resisted the temptation to return to the company. “I knew that if I went back, it would have meant that someone else [in the company] would probably have lost their job eventually,” he says. “It sounds saintly, but it wasn’t like that. I was afraid to be trapped in the family business.”
After six months out of work, Morley landed a job at Stafford College, where he worked as a lecturer until 1989, when a brush with death changed his outlook. Having been diagnosed with a serious illness, he was given just days to live but, after a five and a half hour emergency operation, pulled through, against the odds. “Friday 13th [the date of the operation] is always quite a lucky day for me,” he says. “I wasn’t afraid of dying; in some ways it would have been a relief. But it changed me. I grew up.”
I found I was a good teacher and I’m not embarrassed to say that”
A few months later, Morley returned to work with a germ of an idea. At a time when many colleges were cutting back on construction courses (mainly because they were expensive to run) he put forward a radical plan to expand provision at the college – and landed himself the job of head of construction in the process. When his plan proved profitable for the college, he took on additional responsibilities, and in the late 1990s, moved to Stoke College as head of faculty for engineering and construction before becoming director of curriculum at South Cheshire college.
But when it was suggested that he take a secondment as vice principal at nearby Cannock Chase College, which had just had an unsatisfactory Ofsted inspection, he wasn’t keen. His own college was due an inspection any day, and he wanted to be there to lead the team through it.
After much cajoling from the then principal of Stoke College, David Collins, he reluctantly agreed to give it a go. But after six months – during which time the college improved to a ‘satisfactory’ Ofsted rating – he found Cannock had got under his skin.
When a permanent post of principal was advertised – and despite the fact the college had been earmarked for merger by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) – he applied for the job. “I loved the people and the students and I could see that I could make a difference and a contribution to the town…so I took the risk that it could all go belly up,” he says.
That was in 2005 and (having fought off the LSC’s proposed merger during his first year at the college) over the years that followed, he began exploring the idea of a strategic merger with nearby Rodbaston College and Tamworth and Lichfield Colleges. “None of them were in a bad position, financially or qualitatively, but none of them were big enough to survive in today’s world,” he says.
South Staffordshire College came into being in January 2009, after he had put his career on the line for a second time, going against “the best field in the country” Morley became principal of the newly-formed institution. He recalls: “I found that interview really difficult because, for the first time in my life, I really wanted that job, but there was a good chance that I wasn’t going to get it because I’d never run a college of that size before…but the board saw what they wanted to see, I suppose, because I got the job.”
One of the biggest challenges for all principals at the moment is dealing with changes to FE funding he says. And he is particularly concerned about changes to the adult skills budget (and in particular the introduction of FE loans) and how this will affect peoples’ ability to access education. “I understand the government is saying that they [learners] will only pay it back if they are earning more than 21k a year, but the prospect of someone taking on a loan when they are struggling to pay for food and the family and rent and stuff like that…they are not in the right place to take on a lifetime commitment.
I worry for individuals concerned and I worry for the country in a sense, as all the indicators are that skilled jobs are going to grow and the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs will decline.”
Now 57, Morley says he has no intention of retiring any time soon, but is clear he doesn’t want to become “that principal who is shuffling down the corridor when everyone wishes he wasn’t there.” He is clear that he wants to leave at the top of his game.
And for now, what continues to drive him is ensuring the very best outcomes for learners. “I believe the students should be at the heart of what we do, it’s the real secret of our success. I’ve also got a great team around me, great staff at the college where I’m at and we’re all there for one reason – we change lives. At the end of the day, I’m a bricklayer. I’m still that guy on the beach who used to surf…that’s who I am. And above all, I hope I’m human.”
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