With a head for business and strong sense of determination, it is easy to see how Jackie Fisher has led the growth and development of Newcastle College. Christopher Knox caught up with her.
SINCE taking the reins at Newcastle College in 2000, Jackie Fisher has turned a college that was known for its ageing buildings and lack of investment into one that has become a blueprint for how a 21st century public sector enterprise should be run.
Fisher is now chief executive of parent company NCG, which has been created to incorporate the growing number of acquisitions and mergers the college has become involved in over recent years.
These include a 50% share purchase of training group Carter & Carter and a merger with troubled Skelmersdale and Ormskirk College (SOC) in West Lancashire, which has since become an outstanding college with a surplus of £1.8m, which is 14% of its income.
Coming from a tough working class background, it is clear that the climb to the top of the education profession has presented Fisher with a number of challenges.
However, it is also clear that a positive, can-do attitude has made the ascent that much easier.
Fisher was born in Leeds in 1956 on what was believed to be the biggest council estate in Europe – a fact that she says was a point of enormous pride at the time.
She said: “I was very happy in Leeds, but I was ill a lot of the time as a child, so I missed out on a lot of school.
“Once I got my health back, I left school at the age of 16 and went straight into the world of work.”
After a short stint as a clerical assistant at an insurance company, Fisher decided to enter higher education by studying A levels in English, history and general studies before attending Leeds University, where she studied for a degree in English, staying on to complete an English masters, before studying a masters in education management in Sheffield.
She said: “Although I knew I wanted to get a proper education, I hadn’t the faintest idea what I wanted to do once I had finished my degree.
“I guess I was part of that post-war wave of people from less privileged backgrounds going to university for the first time.
“By this time I had two children, so I stayed on at uni to do a masters degree, which I did almost purely so that I could manage my childcare.
“It probably wasn’t the best reason in the world, but it worked out in the end.”
It was by following her studies that Fisher began her career in education and training, taking on the role of lecturer at Whitwood Mining and Technical College near Castleford.
However, Fisher soon realised that she had a mountain to climb.
She said: “I was given the chance to teach and was very lucky in that respect. However, I started out with no idea of how to teach.
“In fact, my induction into teaching involved my manager handing me an English text book at the start of the summer and telling me that she’d see me in September.
“So, I realised very quickly that I would have to do all of the ground work myself, and get myself up to speed without any help. However, back then it was more about teaching for two or three years and getting the experience under your belt before you underwent any formal training.
“It’s very different now, if you start teaching today you’re surrounded with a wide network of support. You’re mentored by a number of people along the way and there’s always someone around to ask questions of and keen to know how you are approaching particular subjects.
“I also didn’t have a car at the time and was getting to and from work via a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride.
“It was very challenging, but we needed to earn money and that was that.
“I started teaching English, but after a few years I started teaching communications and business-related subjects, including teaching people in the public and private sectors about how to communicate effectively.
“Looking back, even though I wasn’t taught how to teach, I think I intuitively knew how to do it.”
Once Fisher had cut her teeth in the teaching profession, she soon began to enjoy herself, as well as discover a real sense of purpose within the role.
She said: “I like people and how they think and what measures need to be put in place to allow them to learn effectively.
“The fact you can take someone that knows very little or even nothing about a subject and move them to a place where they are very capable and confident in that subject is very exciting. It may not sound it, but to me, it’s very exciting and hugely rewarding.
“The education system didn’t work for me when I was at school as it was managed like a production line and you were always taught in a class of 30 or more.
“I don’t learn in the same way as other people learn. I’m good at learning things by myself and I also respond to being pushed and challenged.
“With this in mind, I always tried to teach the individual, not the group, which I find highly motivating.”
Although Fisher enjoyed her time at Whitwood, she decided to move on in 1989 to St Helens College after realising that she had hit the dreaded glass ceiling, with her principal remaining unimpressed by what he called ‘petticoat management’.