News Mar 5, 2024

An Interview with CEO of Inspire Education Group – Rachel Nicholls

This International Women’s Day, Inspire Education Group (IEG), comprising Stamford CollegePeterborough College and University Centre Peterborough, is proud to spotlight remarkable women in our field. Among these pioneers stands Rachel Nicholls, our esteemed Principal and Chief Executive Officer.

Having embarked on a career in further education (FE) in 2001, Rachel ascended through the ranks, from Head of Department to Head of Faculty, Assistant Principal, and eventually Deputy Principal, accumulating extensive experience across eight colleges. Now the CEO of IEG, Rachel’s visionary leadership has propelled the organisation towards a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating, a ranking in the  top 3% of General Further Education Colleges nationally for GCSE English and Maths results, and significant investment in the Centre for Green Technology expansion plan.

In this exclusive interview, we delve into Rachel’s career journey, her insights on women in leadership, and her aspirations for the future of Inspire Education Group.

What do you love most about your role as Chief Executive Officer of Inspire Education Group? 

I would like to think I am making a difference to the regions and communities we serve, and that we are impacting people’s lives positively. What’s vital is that I can’t do that on my own – it really is a team effort. I work with brilliant, hardworking and talented people, and every single member of staff at IEG plays a crucial role in shaping our organisation and delivering for our students.

How do you inspire inclusion in your work and life? 

It’s an ongoing process; I can always learn and do more. But for me, there are a few things that I really focus on: 

  • Be mindful of language: I try to use inclusive language that avoids assumptions about gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and other aspects of identity. I make a conscious effort to ask how people prefer to be addressed and respect their choices.
  • Challenge biases: I like to think I reflect on my own biases and assumptions – we all have them and it’s important we challenge these. Equally, when I see or hear biased behaviour or language from others, I respectfully challenge it. 
  • Celebrate diverse perspectives: I encourage diverse voices to be heard in meetings and discussions, and acknowledge and value different viewpoints. In my personal life, I seek out friendships with people from different backgrounds and cultures, which richly adds to my own experience.
  • Be an ally: I enjoy learning from others about their experiences – good and bad – and offer support to those who face prejudice, discrimination or exclusion.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in leadership positions today, particularly in your sector?

While there have been strides towards gender equality, both generally and in the FE sector, women still face challenges in leadership positions. 

Representation is an area where we have made significant progress. According to the Association of Colleges’ 2022 College Senior Pay Survey, the gender split for CEO or Accounting Officer level roles is circa 45% female, 54% male, with 1% preferring not to say. This is significantly better than some sectors, but still an area for us to monitor and address. 

Women still face challenges from a work environment and culture point of view. Expectations around childcare and home responsibilities are often placed disproportionately on women, creating additional burdens. Hybrid and agile working can help and support all staff, but perhaps even more so for women in this case. 

Stereotypes and implicit biases can also hinder women’s advancement, influencing recruitment, promotion, and performance reviews. Whilst I have been fortunate enough to benefit from some fantastic female role models, in many cases women lack access to strong mentors who can advocate for them. We need to make sure we continue to support ‘up and coming’ women in the sector.

What advice would you give to other women aspiring to leadership roles in the FE sector?

As I urged before, building your network is key. Seek out mentors – trusted individuals that you can learn from. Consider a coach, but spend time seeking out someone that fits with you – as well as support, you also want a challenge. Professional groups can be helpful, especially those specifically for women, such as the Women’s Leadership Network for example.  

Credibility and expertise are vital for success. Seek high quality professional development, relevant to your desired leadership role, that is going to add to your skill set.  Similarly, keep up to date and current – hone and develop the skills critical for leadership, such as communication, critical thinking and decision-making.

Most importantly, take risks and step outside your comfort zone.  Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges and projects, even if they seem daunting – this is a great way of developing self-belief and confidence, but also proving yourself to your colleagues and leaders within the organisation. 

There will be sticky moments – leadership can be challenging and lonely sometimes, but as long as you don’t try to be someone you’re not and learn from setbacks, it’s hugely rewarding. 

What additional responsibilities and interests do you engage in, beyond your role at Inspire Education Group?

Outside of Inspire Education Group, I am proud to serve the community in my roles as Chair of Peterborough Citizens, Deputy Chair of the Towns Fund and Trustee of Peterborough Council for Voluntary Services. 

We need to champion our region – Stamford, Peterborough and the surrounding areas. We live and work in fantastic, diverse places, and should be positive about our green spaces, our connectivity, our culture and heritage and architecture. The investment we are seeing in Peterborough is going to be a game changer for the city!

In my personal life, I love spending time with friends and family, including my five fantastic nephews! I also love sport – I used to play competitive Rugby, Football and Cricket, but now it’s just golf for me. I watch a lot of live sport, and managed to catch some of the Rugby World Cup this past September in Paris! 

What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self? 

Be open to opportunities, particularly if it means going outside your comfort zone – that’s when the best learning can happen. Listen to advice from people who care about you and then make decisions that you know are right for you. Don’t follow the crowd – be brave and bold. Most importantly be kind to others – you never know what someone is going through, and sometimes a smile is all someone needs!

What are your aspirations for IEG and the regions it serves?

I believe that education can transform lives and my aspirations for the communities that we serve. The education and skills we provide help people get on in life, increasing productivity, prosperity, creating wealth and importantly, opportunity. We serve such diverse communities, stakeholders and employers, so we have to be agile and adaptable. Our job is to be innovative and ambitious, never losing sight that whatever we do, we need to do it to the highest standard possible. High quality, innovative provision is what I want IEG to be known for.

Rachel Nicholls’ journey in further education is not just a personal achievement, but a testament to the remarkable contributions that women make in leadership roles. Rachel’s dedication has left an indelible mark on Inspire Education Group and the wider educational landscape, and in celebrating such achievements, we pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable future for generations to come.

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