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Ruth Silver DBE

Honorary Doctorate of Education


Dame Ruth Silver's early career was in child guidance, teaching and inspection. She trained at the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations in Adolescence and Transition and worked at the Woodberry Down Child Guidance Clinic. She taught in Hackney, worked part time for ILEA, worked for the BBC on community youth development, was a civil servant working on the YTS scheme. She also acted as a consultant to Sir Geoffrey Holland working on issues of personal effectiveness among adolescents. She then joined mainstream further education, first at Southwark College, and then in Newham College of Further Education, where she was Vice Principal before becoming, in 1991, Principal and Chief Executive of Lewisham College.

From the outset, Ruth Silver has demonstrated a clear and determined educational philosophy. She has described further education as "the adaptive layer" which deals with the learning challenges thrown up by wider economic and social change.

"We are resolute doers and creative problem-solvers. We are proud of our enduring skills and traditions but we are agile, ambitious and adept at doing new things to meet new needs."

She has sometimes called this the mezzanine concept, the notion of a bridge between levels, between one might say disadvantage and success.

And a further key is the link between talent, creativity and employment. She has been critical of the narrow prescription in the curriculum: "We need vocational, non-academic and practical, hands-on learning, with a skills rather than an academic focus. to bring out of young people all their wonderful qualities of creativity and sensitivity and give them an appetite for the future".

But this in turn, raises questions on how we prepare teachers themselves.

"We can be 'the engine room of social mobility and skills' because we are rich in practical skills and attitudes. So why does the drive to professionalize our workforce not build on these strengths? Why do the routes to qualified teacher status remain so academic? Let's bring the skills agenda into our own workforce development practice."

Under her leadership, Lewisham College has flourished and now has over 16,000 students. Within a few years, she had transformed the institution and in 1999 the College was awarded the coveted Beacon status. Two subject areas have gained the status of Centres of Vocational Excellence. The College has been a pilot for new initiatives, and has earned a number of kite marks including ISO9002, Good Corporation, Charter Mark, Investors in Careers and Investors in People. This year, after a glowing OFSTED report, the College gained its second Beacon status award.

These are important outward symbols of improvement but it is the atmosphere and ethos of the College that you gain the real impact. From the exemplary website to the breakfast seminars and workshops leading to publications on policy and practice. All of this, of course, requires imaginative and sympathetic leadership and one which is pervasive. I remember being taken aback a while ago when I rang the switchboard of the College to talk to Ruth, only to find that the automated welcome message was, by Ruth herself. Not only Principal but even switchboard operator – she engages with every aspect of the institution.

"Everything we do", Ruth Silver has written "is about putting learners at the centre of things – a whole systemic framework which has taken a long time to develop. " Lewisham, she says, is a thinking college, whose abiding atmosphere is that there is nothing that clever people working hard together cannot do.

And the results are clear for all to see as anyone who has attended her remarkable annual awards ceremonies for achieving students, including awards for individuals who have simply demonstrated courage and determination against all odds.

As a result of these achievements, Ruth has been in huge demand for advice and guidance. Just to give a brief flavour of some of current or recent engagements: Trustee of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Association, a board member of Edge, of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, the Higher Education Academy, the Strategic Skills Commission, the Skills Advisory Board of the National Employment, the Post 16 Leadership College Advisory Board and E-learning Task Force. She is constantly sought to give advice to the Education Select Committee or to departments, including the Cabinet Office and Downing Street, on social exclusion, women and work and education more generally. But she also finds time for charitable work or as a trustee, whether the London International Festival of Theatre or the Laban Dance Centre. And not just here but in Africa as a trustee of the Lotte Betts Priddie Trust working in Sierra Leone following the same principles as she has been applying in Lewisham.

And, of course, bearing in mind her own debt to organised trade unionism, she is an emeritus governor of the Working Men's College. And I am pleased to say that she is at this time a Visiting Professor in Educational Development at London South Bank University, because we totally share her convictions, her pedagogic philosophy and her belief in the need to nourish talent wherever it is found.

Personal recognition has followed: a CBE in 1998 for services to Further Education, (incidentally when asked by someone what the letters CBE stood for, typically she said – Completely Believes in Education.) She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in the Social Sciences from the University of Southampton in 2001 and a Fellowship by the City and Guilds Institute. In this year's New Years Honours, she was made a Dame of the British Empire.

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