Maxine Room, CBE

Doctor of Laws Maxine Room

Friday 13 July 2012 at 2 pm - Orator: Professor Leon Tikly

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,

The mission of our great University is to pursue and share knowledge and understanding, both for their own sake and to help individuals and society fulfil their potential. Maxine Room CBE is a living embodiment of that mission. She has herself excelled in the pursuit of knowledge and has made it her lifetime’s work to help others to do the same.

Here at Bristol we are committed to values of respect for diversity, equality of opportunity and to widening participation in education. These are values that Maxine cherishes and puts into practice on a day-to-day basis as Principal of one the largest further education colleges in England (soon to become even larger), as an educator who has positively influenced the lives of thousands of young people, and as a role model and mentor for other leaders. Maxine’s own history is inextricably bound up with that of the city and of the University of Bristol. Her achievements are many and varied in spite of very humble beginnings.

Maxine is from a mixed race background. Born in South London her single parent mother brought her up with her brother in Hackney, one of the poorest London boroughs. At that time as now, the chances of progressing into a professional career from such humble origins were slim. However, her mother encouraged a positive approach to learning. She believed that her children could overcome any barriers. She made them believe that anybody could achieve what they wanted to in life, regardless of race, gender or disability.

Maxine’s educational journey and thirst for learning started when she went to grammar school, Skinners' Company School for Girls in Hackney. By her own account, and whatever one may feel about selective education today, this gave her an excellent start to her academic career. She was taught in the main by women who believed in the power of education for girls. They encouraged her even though she did not demonstrate academic prowess until the end of her 5th form. She stayed on into the 6th form because the teachers, like Maxine’s mother, believed that education was a key to something better. Social mobility and the rise of the meritocracy was the province of the baby boomers of which she was one.

It was important in her school that all progressed into a profession and teaching was to be her destiny. Having completed a three year teacher training qualification in Bath she was again encouraged to go further and reach higher by taking a degree validated by the University of Bristol. Her fourth year was a revelation and by the end of it she had studied the sociology of the family but more than that had a real understanding of equality and inequality which characterised some of the work she was to focus on later in her career. She graduated in 1979 with a Second Class Honours degree.

Maxine has always worked in further education and is passionate about education, training and skills.  Her career has spanned working in rural and urban areas. She started teaching at Bridgwater College where she taught vocational courses, GCSEs and A-levels in a range of subjects such as social sciences, childcare, health and social care. Her desire for inclusivity was sparked while serving on the equal opportunities group at Bridgwater College.

After a few years in her first post at Bridgwater College, Maxine began to have the urge to write something academic. She discarded the notion of a novel but instead registered for a part time Master’s degree focusing on multicultural education and equalities. This was to be a pivotal point in her career. The modules chosen were directly linked to the work she had been doing on equal opportunities both in the college and across the county. Travelling each week to Bristol and the University for two years gave her a wider perspective on equality and diversity and influenced her teaching.

The research into multicultural education provided an understanding of why learners from the diaspora and ethnic minorities achieve less well than their indigenous counterparts. Indeed, we are still today tussling with why young black African Caribbean boys do not engage well with learning. Less than half achieve the benchmark of 5A*-Cs at GCSE and they are the lowest performing group. The causes of their underachievement are complex. It is clear, however, that their points of reference and positive role models or absence of them have a huge impact on their achievements particularly in the urban environments. Maxine has provided such a role model and in her work as a teacher and leader she has been in a position to make a difference to the lives of Black Caribbean and other disadvantaged groups of learners.

Her MEd helped her over the teaching threshold and into management first at Bridgwater and then at Filton College, Bristol. She has occupied three principalships (soon to be four) at Swansea College, Leeds City College and Lewisham College in South London. In a recent profile of her achievements in the University magazine Nonesuch Maxine commented that she has always reviewed her career without thinking about her race or ethnicity. However, when she was appointed at Swansea College in 2003, she was the first black principal of a further education (FE) college in Wales and the second in the UK. The fact that there are remarkably few black and minority ethnic (BME) senior managers in the FE sector indicates that there are underlying factors still to be addressed.

Maxine is an extremely skilled leader and manager and has accrued a vast experience of the business of further education including curriculum and quality, employer engagement, community development, merger and capital build. She was instrumental in instigating the merger of three colleges in Leeds to form the Leeds City College with an enrolment of 38,000 students. She became the Principal of Park Lane Campus, Leeds City College before moving to taking up the principalship of Lewisham College in 2007.  Lewisham College has a population of 16,000 students and growing. Despite the ever-changing financial climate, Maxine’s focus is on growing the college’s vision of creating successful futures and working in partnership with other colleges. As a Principal of a large inner-city college serving a diverse and multi-cultural population, Maxine represents the institution on a number of groups and boards including the 157 Group, London Capital Colleges and the Gazelle group. Just last month, in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Maxine was awarded a CBE for services to further education and to race and gender equality.

Maxine is currently in the process of managing the third major merger in her career as an educational leader. Lewisham College and Southwark College have just announced their formal merger. The merged college will be led by Maxine and will be one of the largest in London serving over 20,000 students from diverse backgrounds with a wide range of aspirations.

Maxine believes passionately that the FE sector has a responsibility to bring on the next generation of leaders and managers and as long as she has been a principal she has held concurrent roles as coach and mentor. Initially, she began mentoring as part of the Network for Black Professionals and the Black Leadership Initiative. Her role was to work with Black and Minority Ethnic managers and senior managers in FE colleges, supporting them in progressing upwards into their next role.

Fundamentally Maxine’s core values have remained the same. She is driven by the conviction that all learners under her care and jurisdiction deserve the best service she can give them so they too can be successful. She is a trustee of the Helena Kennedy Foundation, the aim of which is to strive to overcome social injustice by providing financial bursaries, mentoring and support to disadvantaged students from further and adult education sectors. The Foundation ensures that all those who want access to education can get it, for the purpose of sustainable employment and not just education for education’s sake.

Maxine’s interests extend beyond education. She believes passionately in the Arts and is a Board member for the Northern Ballet Theatre. 

Maxine has stated that the modules she did at Bristol as part of her MEd helped to frame her thinking to this day, in terms of self-development and equality, and laid the foundation that has helped her to become the manager she is today. We should be extremely proud as a University and as a Graduate School of Education to have contributed to the development of such a remarkable woman. Through her contribution to education in our City, the region and nationally, Maxine stands out as a beacon for all of us and for everything that we stand for as an institution.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Maxine Room as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.


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