Transforming Lives Through Education

Sir Kevan Collins

Sir Kevan Collins (Economics & Politics, 1982, Furness) has been appointed by the government to oversee the recovery of schools after the pandemic (February 2021.) Here is his story from his days at Lancaster, including the opening of The Sugar House through to his various high profile roles in education.

From day one as a Fresher, the young and politically active Kevan Collins knew he wanted to teach, but his years at Lancaster gave him extraordinary opportunities to practise skills that took his passion for the classroom onto a wider national educational stage.

Knighted in 2015 for services to Education, Sir Kevan Collins has just stepped down from the job as Chief Executive at the Educational Endowment Fund (EEF) which he has held for the past 17 years, and has no plans for retiring. He is taking on the fight against violent crime as Chair of the Youth Endowment Fund, a £200 million, ten year government-backed initiative focused on tackling youth crime by supporting early interventions for young people at risk.

He continues his classroom links as Executive Vice Chairman of Learning By Questions - the cloud-based classroom feedback app.

“Nothing matters more than education” states Collins, on the eve of a fact-finding trip to Australia. The moment he realised the truth of this statement was in a darkroom in Lancaster teaching a troubled teenager on a Dukes Theatre youth scheme how to develop photos, in a post-university year testing his vocation with youngsters.

“It was the realisation that all those kids involved in crime - when you got them on their own doing something with them that they wanted to do - had a story to tell and dreams of success,” Collins explains. “Any of them could have been me or my brothers, if we had not had the advantages we had.”

Lancaster University altered Collins’ world. The penultimate of six sons born into an army family, he had moved around the UK and been to schools in Germany and Cyprus before they settled in Preston and he was sent to school in Kirkham, Lancashire: “Coming to Lancaster changed everything for me. I was on a full grant, I had my own bedroom. I could not believe the freedom I had to become the person I am. Coming from an army family, I recognised that there were levels. I was moving in a bigger world, but not towards something that was overwhelming.”

A member of the Labour Party from the age of 14, he became heavily involved in student and local Labour politics and his studies in Economics and Politics only complemented his growing passion for social justice. At weekends he was close enough to be able to cycle home on occasions. He played squash regularly, made good use of the university sports facilities with his friends and took advantage of the University’s location to go walking in the Lakes.

His real turning point was when he stood for President of the Students’ Union in 1981 on an education platform and won. In a highly politically charged UK, with CND high on the agenda as well as the impending miners’ strike, he became fascinated about the power of people to come together to change an issue: “I found I was able to communicate with people and to make speeches in conferences,” he recalls.

The opening of The Sugar House happened on his watch and he discovered that he enjoyed both the planning and the delivery of a complex plan, including the legal and technical details.

Galvanised by his experiences on the Dukes Theatre youth scheme he did a teaching certificate at Bradford and Ilkley Community College designed for people who wanted to work with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He taught in Bradford, Tower Hamlets and on secondments in Mozambique and India, before moving into a literacy advisor role in Bradford.

‘Teaching people to read is my passion. If you can read, you can learn for yourself, he explains. He became Regional Director then Deputy National Director of the National Literacy Strategy, followed by his first national role in 2003 as National Director of the Primary National Strategy. Along the way, he bolstered this passion with a PhD at Leeds University focused on literacy development.

His career took an unexpected turn in 2005 when he became Director of Children’s Services at Tower Hamlets and then Chief Executive of the Council for two years, driven by a commitment to social justice and a wish to address inequality. Drawing on his Students’ Union President experience, he had discovered he was a leader and he knew that much of the power comes from the implementation process. He applied creativity to the role and even worked for a week incognito as a trainee (in a Channel 4 ‘Undercover Boss’ documentary) to try and find ways of cutting £50m off the council budget.

His move from being ‘a delivery person’ back into education came as Chief Executive of the EEF - an organisation set up to reduce disadvantage by supporting teachers and Head Teachers to discover and share effective practice. One in two schools have now been involved in a study. “I’m deeply committed to the idea of allowing teachers in jobs to take responsibility,” stresses Collins. “Otherwise you are talking about the infantilisation of teachers.”

The job with which Collins most identifies is still that of a teacher. He believes that education is a transformative experience, because he has experienced it personally, especially during his undergraduate years at Lancaster. “Lancaster gave me huge confidence,” he muses. “I was getting up and speaking to large audiences with the support of tight groups of people I trusted around me. Here you were given the chance to try out things before you did them in the rest of your life.”

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