Interview with Asha Khemka, a college principal set on raising white, working-class aspirations

Asha Khemka left school at 13, and aims to show young people that education can be a route out of poverty

She dropped out of school at 13 and was married within a year. At 25, she arrived in the UK from India unable to speak English and with three small children in tow.

Asha Khemka has come a long way since then: soon she will be going to Buckingham Palace to receive the OBE she was awarded in the New Year honours list, in recognition of turning an average further education college into one of the best in the country.

Last July, West Nottinghamshire College, where she has been principal for less than three years, was rated outstanding in all areas by Ofsted inspectors, achieving the top grade in all six main categories. This result puts it in the top 5% of colleges nationally.

In her short time there, its turnover has nearly doubled, from £28m in 2006 to in excess of £50m today. "We are now probably the biggest college in the East Midlands," she says.

Tackling underachievement

Being the biggest and best is not her only ambition, however, and she harbours a desire to tackle the white working-class underachievement that is all too prevalent in Mansfield and Ashfield, the towns her college serves. Both have been hit hard by the collapse of the mining, textile and manufacturing industries. Just 4% of the local population are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

"I believe in empowerment, in releasing people's energy and creativity, and leading by example," she says. "Not just the leadership of the college - I want to provide a leading role for the regeneration of the whole community by raising aspirations, improving attainment, and tackling worklessness."

Six months ago, she launched a charitable foundation, the Inspire and Achieve Foundation. Its main objective is to raise the aspirations of young white people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"Among those achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE, it is white working-class boys who are bottom of the league," she explains. "I do believe that there has been a lot of work done to raise the aspirations of minority ethnic groups for some time. Now there is clear evidence that white working-class young people are being left behind, while their counterparts from ethnic backgrounds are forging ahead.

"When we look at the Neet group [teenagers not in education, employment or training], we find significant numbers of white working-class young people who don't really have a strong family infrastructure behind them. We find they are from three or four generations of worklessness and a poverty of aspiration. There are high levels of teenage pregnancy and low levels of progression to higher education."

Family support

Khemka was a young mother herself. "My first child was born when I was 21 and I had two more children within three years," she says. "The difference is that I had support from my family and it was part of my culture. Often, teenage pregnancy here is the result of low self-esteem among our young people."

The foundation aims to change that by sending youngsters from low-achieving, white working-class backgrounds to India and China to learn how young people in those countries value education as a route out of poverty. "We want them to see what it is like to be hungry to be successful," she says.

Focusing on this group has been a priority in her time at West Nottinghamshire. A vocational workshop has been set up for Neets, which this year has 120 students. "Most of these youngsters have not been near any form of learning since they were 12," she says. "We offer them a free cooked breakfast, which for many is their main meal of the day. They do hands-on vocational courses in hair and beauty, motorbike repair and fashion design, and the majority progress to full level 2 courses and apprenticeships."

She left school after passing her exams, which were the equivalent of 10 GCSE passes in high grades. "It was the custom at the time to leave school when you became engaged," she explains. Her marriage to a 19-year-old first-year medical student had been arranged for her by her parents. Her husband is now a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in Staffordshire.

"We started our romance after we were married," she says. "He has been my pillar of strength, my greatest admirer, my biggest critic, and a proper guide."

She taught herself English by watching children's television and talking to the other young mothers at her children's playgroup, while her husband worked at a hospital in Birmingham.

She also devoted her time to teaching her own children. "By the time they were five they all knew their times tables up to 20," she says. This enabled them to gain scholarships to private prep schools, from which her two sons went to Harrow and her daughter to Moreton Hall in Shropshire.

With her children away at boarding school, she concentrated on pursuing her own education and obtained a business degree from Cardiff University. She then became a lecturer at Oswestry College and rose through the ranks to become deputy principal at New College Nottingham before taking her current job.

Receiving the OBE is just one item on her busy agenda. Her next focus is on driving forward the college's ambitious plans to replace its main campus with a £96m "super-college".

"Everywhere I have been we have had good inspection results," she says. "When I came to this college, it was my dream to take us through to an outstanding inspection performance."

Joe Clancy

The GuardianTramp

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