William Pickford has had an “eclectic” 25-year career in FE which has seen him opening a college on a faraway tropical island, overseeing another as it was evicted due to local authority financial mismanagement, and now, leading London’s only ‘outstanding’ council-run adult education service.
Since 2021, he has been the principal of Redbridge Institute of Adult Education. He was described 20 years ago by a fellow educator as a “maverick” and admits “it is a moniker I’ve tried to live up to ever since.”
Pickford’s time at Redbridge has been one of rapid change for the adult education sector, and some of that has been “painful”. Half of its curriculum has changed since Covid to reflect shifting national funding priorities.
The institute traces its history back to 1903 when East London’s first adult education courses included French, shorthand, dressmaking, cookery, bookkeeping and drawing.
But the purpose of publicly funded adult education drastically altered with the 2021 skills white paper and ensuing local skills improvement plans, which align adult education budget funding to skills gaps.
He sees adult education as now split between “two completely different cohorts” – one for “basic skills” and the other, which has shrunk considerably, for “more traditional” informal learning. “But adult education should be for everyone.”
The sector’s marketing materials haven’t caught up with the pace of change. Pickford says that “every picture you see of adult learning” tends to be of “the photogenic bits – the creative arts courses, the pottery being made”. But this “doesn’t represent the reality”.
“We need to be careful. The reality [of adult education] is ESOL, maths, and digital skills, but we still love putting pictures of art shows on our publicity.”
And while Redbridge is “still funded as though it were a leafy London suburb”, the borough now hosts the highest number of asylum seekers and refugees in London. As a result, 62 per cent of its adult skills provision is now ESOL, and there is a waiting list of 350 people waiting to access it.
Many of the institute’s learners are newly arrived migrants placed in Redbridge by the Home Office with only two weeks’ notice, and they are often moved on “at a moment’s notice” too. It makes planning tricky.
Pickford shows me around the former pilates, yoga and dance studios that have been transformed into learning and employability hubs and ESOL classrooms, and the hair and nail studio that’s now a skills and enterprise hub. It has been a “painful journey”.
The pilates classmates in particular would not surrender without a fight. “Oh crumbs, they were very vocal – writing to everyone they could, the Mayor of London, the local councillors, Ofsted, and GLA funders.
“People just don’t understand that that’s no longer what our funders tell us our priorities are. They say, ‘we’ve been doing those sessions for years and years. Why can’t we continue?’”
The city boy
Although his childhood home on a farm (“mostly sheep”) on the outskirts of a “tiny village” in Somerset might sound idyllic, he “hated it” as he “had to be ferried everywhere, and there wasn’t much to do”.
Pickford had been a “lifelong” Manchester United fan since his Mancunian grandfather took him to see them play in the city as a boy. It was part of the reason why he chose Manchester University to study. He was the first in his family to go to university but ignored their advice to study “a proper subject” like law or business, instead opting for hotel and catering management.
He trained with Stakis Hotels in the Scottish Cairngorms, but “hated it for the same reasons” he left Somerset: it was “miles away from anywhere”. He “couldn’t wait to get out”, and moved to the bright lights of London where he turned his attention to hotel events management.
He applied for a PGCE course “on a whim” because he “quite fancied that teaching lark”. His intention was to teach hospitality, but he never got the chance as his first job in 1998 was at Orpington College (now part of LSEC), which lacked a hospitality department. Instead, he taught business, accounting and economics among other things, because “you don’t say no to anything”.
As a gay man, Pickford said the FE sector “provided me with the first safe space where I felt comfortable enough talking about who I really was. 25 years ago, that was a really big thing.”
Pickford then spent seven years promoting digital learning for two big government organisations – as head of innovation at Jisc, and head of provider capacity for Becta, based at the University of London.
It was an “exciting” time for the sector in the early 2000’s with “lots of money sloshing around” for digital projects, with the dawn of e-learning and smart boards. Pickford recalls Becta having a budget of £21 million one year to give away to colleges.
Some “really exciting ideas” were born from the mentality of “not being afraid of failing, because there were no consequences”. The funding was simply conditional on recipients sharing their successes and failures with others in the sector.
One notable success was the open-source software Moodle, one of the first virtual learning environments which became a “pooled shared service” for universities and colleges. Becta was axed in David Cameron’s bonfire of the quangos, but Moodle outlasted it.
He believes there is not enough of that type of sector-wide collaboration now, because “you need that brokerage”.
These days East London providers work together when it comes to ESOL, with Redbridge and New City College referring potential students to each other because “there’s so much work to go around”. And the GLA is planning a London-wide ESOL strategy.
But Pickford believes there is scope for much greater collaboration.
“Our residents don’t know where to start [to improve their careers], and we don’t make it any easier for them. We’re all selling the same thing in slightly different ways, and actually that’s no good for them. They need that very clear roadmap, otherwise how do they navigate their way through?”
Turning around colleges
Pickford spent the next few years in interim roles. His first involved turning around what was then the only specialist women’s residential college in the country, Hillcroft (now part of Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College), after an inadequate Ofsted in 2013.
The college used to be for “tweedy middle aged white women”. But the area’s demographics had shifted, and the college “hadn’t moved fast enough for the times”. Pickford was told to make the curriculum more relevant to local needs.
He also interim-ed for Stanmore College and Westminster Kingsway College.
These short-term roles did not give him a complete “sense of achievement” because “you never get to see the outcomes” of the measures put in place.
Pickford’s next career move took him to Bali, where he and his long-term partner, who is Indonesian, opened a private training college to prepare locals for joining Australian universities.
The experience gave him an appreciation for the English public sector.
Pickford found they were “at the whim of our investors deciding to change course” and “everything was so bureaucratic”. Each year the college had to be accredited by both the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Education, with “the strangest Ofsted type regime you could imagine”.
Despite Bali being a “very pleasant place to live”, Pickford would spend every other weekend “jetting off to New Zealand, Singapore and Bangkok … just to experience crowds again”.
He returned after four years because he “missed England, and the public sector”.
But Pickford’s next role in 2018, as vice principal at Thurrock Adult Community College, did not exactly exemplify public sector excellence.
Thurrock Council had embarked on an infamous spending spree in the solar power market which led to its bankruptcy four years later. Seeking extra cash, the council made a “shock” announcement they were demolishing the college’s building to sell the land.
The college staff and learners were given just two months’ notice to leave the site in Greys, where the college had been based for the previous 30 to 40 years.
“The writing was on the wall” at that point for the council, which Pickford said “didn’t care” where the learners went. Pickford put moving plans in motion, then moved on to Redbridge.
Redbridge’s last [outstanding] inspection took place in 2018 under the old common inspection framework, before Pickford arrived there in 2021, and he is now faced with a “totally different set of goalposts”.
However, life is easier in some ways for Pickford than his FE college counterparts.
Pickford’s adult learners “genuinely want to be here”, they are “committed to finishing their courses”, and there are “very few” behaviour issues. The pass rate last year for English and maths GCSEs was 100 per cent.
When Pickford first arrived, he announced “probably prematurely” he would create an ESOL hub within a 30-minute walk from every home in the borough. It took two years to map where the gaps in provision were.
But his “aspiration” is to provide “local services for local people”.
If the institute has “one weakness”, it is personal development. The ability to roll out enrichment programmes is limited by rules that restrict funding to each learning aim. For example, Redbridge receives £811 for a student doing a year-long GCSE course. “Unless they do other fundable learning aims, I have to work five times as hard as FE colleges to get the same amount of funding they do”.
Despite local authority funding constraints, Pickford would rather see the service kept in council hands because “big FE colleges have not got that neighbourhood knowledge”.
“From street to street, we know what residents’ skills needs are because we empty their bins, they come to us for housing advice.”
And AI data advances mean adult learning services like his are getting “smarter at identifying the people that need the most help”.
“It’s always those people furthest away from education and employment that you need to put the bulk of your resources in engaging. It might take many attempts to get them onto an adult skills funded course – they’re disengaged for a reason. But they’re our bread and butter.”
Ode to Redbridge
It takes a lot for Pickford to show emotion: the last time he cried was during the 1991-2 football season, when it looked as though he would “never see United win the league”. But he does show a depth of emotion when discussing his love of FE.
“What I do now is where I feel the closest connection to my passion for social justice. The power of adult education to transform the lives of those who need it most is what inspires me every day.”
Four months ago, at Redbridge’s 120th anniversary gala dinner celebrations, Pickford’s contribution, “apart from some mad Bhangra dancing”, was a poem: