Lee Davies never really excelled at school. He was a bright student and could have done well at something he loved, but no particular subject grabbed him.
At the tender age of 16 in 1982, and filled with nerves, he turned up outside Highbury College in Cosham to start an apprenticeship in plumbing.
Little did he know that he would spend more than a decade behind the college’s doors. Now the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys, Lee has a lot to thank Highbury for.
The 47-year-old, who now lives in Purbrook but at the time was based in Stamshaw, believes the decision to study there changed his life.
‘I was so nervous at the time. I didn’t know anything about further education or plumbing, I just pitched up with another bunch of lads,’ laughs Lee.
‘At school I didn’t do particularly well because I was totally switched off. I was in the top band, but I preferred being out on building sites.
‘I had no idea that the next 20 years of my life would revolve around the college.’
Not thinking particularly far into the future, there was something about the teaching at Highbury that made Lee sit up and pay attention.
He explains: ‘I wasn’t expected to amount to much so I thought that would be it for life. But the teachers transformed my life. They were all experts in their subject areas and had great experience.
‘They worked with the students in a way I hadn’t experienced before.’
Lee knew he wanted to work with metal, but learning at Highbury he fell in love with his craft and began winning national awards – at one point he was one of the top five plumbing students in the country.
‘At the time I didn’t think I appreciated how far I would go,’ says Lee.
‘The big difference for me was that at Highbury the teachers knew their areas so well, because they had been out there in the world doing it.’
But it was more than that – Lee wanted to emulate them.
It was during a fellow student’s wedding reception that his lecturers struck up a conversation with him.
Highbury College’s construction courses were full of people because many adults were looking to train in practical skills. His old teachers were looking for someone to teach an evening class at the college, and would he be interested in doing it?
‘I was just 21 at the time, and doing really well working for Portsmouth City Council,’ says Lee.
He didn’t think much of it, until he got a phone call a couple of weeks later.
‘I remember coming home one day and my mum said they’d called. There were no mobile phones in those days, but I called them straight back. John Enticknap asked me if I was serious about doing it, and I thought ‘‘well why don’t I give it a try?’’
‘And that’s when I fell in love with teaching.’
Lee turned up on a wet Tuesday evening at the Unicorn Training Centre to teach his first class about pipe-bending.
He says: ‘At the time you didn’t need official qualifications, you just had to know how to do the job. It was more important to do the job well, even though I was a lot younger than most of the people I was teaching at the time.
‘I felt like the first time round I hadn’t done particularly well and I was given a second chance to do something. Now I was the person giving that second chance – it was fantastically attractive.’
Lee believes that his teaching ability largely comes from watching the people who inspired him at Highbury, and he went on to study for his teacher training at the college.
‘I met some of the greatest, most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. While they were teaching me, they also taught me how to teach,’ says Lee.
‘I wanted to give something back to Highbury College, which had given me such fantastic training. I went from a part-time lecturer, and ended up as the senior manager for curriculum more than a decade later.’
Lee left the college after 12 years in 1999 as head of vocational courses and manager of the adult education programme, but never forgot how much it changed his life.
‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without the inspirational teachers I had when I worked there. You learn from everybody around you. I never ended up where I expected to, I’ve had a mad life.’
Lee went on to help set up a professional body for adult further education, and that’s when the patent attorneys got in contact. Now a chief executive, Lee looks back at his time at the college with fondness.
He says: ‘Highbury is a very special place and will be for so many people in Portsmouth. I’m so happy it’s celebrating its 50th birthday because it means so much to me.
‘The teachers and support staff at Highbury make it great through their passion for teaching, and connections with industry, business and the local community. And long may it continue.’
Based in Cosham, Highbury College has just celebrated its 50th birthday and in 2011 was ranked the number one general further education college in England for student success.
The college provides vocational and academic education and training for young people an adults. Given an Outstanding from Ofsted in 2011 in all areas, courses at the college include those for school-leavers, mature students and university students.
It also provides flexible training and apprenticeships for businesses, and places for international students.
Highbury College was officially opened on September 17, 1963 as Highbury Technical College. Built at a cost of nearly £600,000, the college was originally designed for a student population of 2,800, but 5,000 students enrolled in the first year.
For more information, go to highbury.ac.uk.