Professor Sonia Blandford is founder and CEO of the national charity Achievement for All 3As. With over 30 years’ experience, she is one of the UK’s leading practitioners of education within the voluntary, community, charity and public sectors. She is passionate about raising the aspirations, success and achievement for all children and young people, and was listed in this year’s Debrett’s 500 in the Education sector. www.afa3as.org.uk
1. What was your biggest career break?
In 2002 I was head hunted for the role of dean at Canterbury Christ Church University. The need for teachers in schools had reached an all-time high, so being asked to lead the largest faculty of education in UK at a time of growth was both an honour and a pressure. I led the creation of 32 routes into teaching, including Teach First, and supported these initiatives right through to the point of delivery.
2. Have you had a notable mentor – and if so, what was it about them that was so inspiring?
Dame Janet Trotter was a real figure of influence for me. At the time I met her she was a teacher and a vice chancellor. She is now The Queen’s representative for Gloucestershire. I admire her down-to-earth approach to life and all that she has achieved.
3. What one piece of advice would you give to the 20-year-old you?
I’d tell her to follow her ambitions and use the very many barriers life throws at us to provide strength and opportunity. And choose your professional allies wisely: the team you build around you is so important.
4. What qualities to do you look for in new recruits?
I look for the people who share my absolute commitment to a fairer society by improving outcomes for all children. I admire people with an entrepreneurial spirit who find innovative solutions to life’s biggest challenges. I believe success comes from hard work so I look for doers. It is important in our field to be analytical, and above all I look for great communicators who will make sure our message is heard far
5. Who do you admire in business and why?
I admire anyone who uses their success, power and influence to improve the life chances of others. James Dyson for example – he optimises all that I look for in my answer to the previous question.
6. What does the future of your industry look like?
There are two separate parts to our world – the charity sector, and education. The latter is lacking in confidence and leadership, and we need to support schools, colleges and early years settings in changing that. As for charities, these are still tough times for everyone. We need to work together to provide solutions that are collaborative, and most importantly evidence-based – that way we can plough energy and funding into the things that are proven to work.
7. If you hadn’t chosen your existing career, what would you have done instead?
The truth is, at 18, had I not been so driven to pursue a career in education I would not have had much choice. It is more than likely that I would have ended up, like most of my peers from the Allied estate where I grew up, on the factory shop floor. Most of the children that lived on the Allied in Hounslow followed their parents into the factories. I spent a short spell fitting springs to watches and knew I wanted more from my life.
8. What is your biggest extravagance?
My homes. I grew up in social housing. There were no books, plants or pictures in the house, and for a good few years the toilet was outside! It gave me the desire to improve my surroundings. Today my family and friends will tell you my houses are filled with plants and pictures, and probably far too many books!
9. Who would you invite to your dream dinner party and why? (You can invite three people – they must be alive)
Three is difficult – there are so many people I would like to meet. If I had to narrow it down I would go for Hilary Clinton – she has demonstrated political leadership beyond that of all world leaders, and is one of the very few women to hold top jobs in politics. I would love to meet Will.I.Am because I have huge admiration for his desire to drive social change. He has donated a huge amount of money and time to improving the education of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and I would use the dinner party to invite him to be an ambassador for Achievement for All! My final guest would be Malala Yousafzai, an extraordinary young woman who has done so much for female education and whose own personal determination and resilience are an example to us all.
10. What do you do to relax away from work?
Cornwall is a beloved spot for my family and I. We have a place down there and go as often as we can. We love to walk the dog on Cornish beaches – the air, sea, light are second to none. It is a place of quality family time.
11. If you could change one thing about Britain today, what would it be?
The thing I work tirelessly for every single day of the week – I would change the current divisions in education provision and outcomes. The achievement gap between those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged and their wealthier peers continues to grow in this country. The statistics are terrifying. For example, ‘looked after’ children [children in care] in the UK are more likely to end up in prison than they are at university. The Achievement for All programme is changing that, but there are too many schools who don’t yet know of our work. We need to spread the word that our approach works, and really is changing lives and creating futures.
12. What would your last meal be? (please choose a starter, a main course and a pudding)
It would have to feature scampi, and perhaps some sausages with a baked potato and fresh vegetables – simple pleasures! If I was allowed a pudding I’d go for Eton Mess.