Simon Blake: 'Being part of a movement is something I like'

The new chief executive of the National Union of Students says his charity is on a mission to change the world. Andy Hillier talks to the man whose job is to help tackle questions facing seven million students

Simon Blake
Simon Blake

Simon Blake breezes through the reception of the National Union of Students' head office with an unexpected guest in tow. He has to rush back later in the day to his native north Cornwall for a family emergency and has brought to work Dolly, his Staffordshire terrier, named after the singer Dolly Parton. He is clearly unfazed by having this doe-eyed dog with him and seems to enjoy all the attention she attracts from NUS staff.

The unflappable quality on display here is something Blake will need in spades in this latest job of his. In May he left the youth sexual health charity Brook, where he had worked for nearly a decade, to become chief executive of the NUS, the national body that represents the UK's 600 student unions.

It's not a job for the faint-hearted. Blake's role is to help the student body achieve its priorities, which are set by the seven million students it represents and which often bring it into conflict with the government over issues such as tuition fees.

To make life even more interesting, Blake is not directly answerable to a trustee board consisting of a group of seasoned professionals. Instead, his boss is the student union president, who is currently Megan Dunn, a 24-year-old politics graduate. It is not a structure that suits everyone. Last year, Ben Kernighan, the respected former deputy chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, suddenly stepped down as chief executive of the NUS after less than 10 months amid rumours of internal power struggles and differences over strategy.

'I can make a contribution, but also learn'

So what attracted Blake to the role? "The NUS has a £20m turnover and a big enterprise arm," he says. "It is an area where I think I can make a contribution, but also learn. But I also like the idea of a movement. You've got 600 student unions that are your membership and that together have done some of the biggest things in history.

"It was the first movement to adopt policy around gay rights and it was the first mainstream organisation in the UK to have a black president. I also feel strongly that we have to get education right. I was the first person in my family to go to university. If I hadn't gone to a further education college, I would probably still be living in Cornwall, which would be fine, but I don't think I would have fulfilled my potential."

He says he was also ready for a new challenge after nine years at Brook, during which it changed from comprising 17 member organisations to becoming a single national charity.

"We had got past the hurdle of whether the merger would work," he says. "We had achieved the shift to becoming more of a young people-led organisation. I felt that, for the organisation, it was a good time for someone new to come in. I'm quite a high-energy person and I was ready for something new."

Blake knows his predecessor Kernighan reasonably well from various charity sector committees, but refuses to say whether he spoke to him before accepting the NUS role. This is the only question he doesn't answer in the entire interview. "When you go for any job, you have to be clear that it's the right job for you," he says. "I went through that process myself about whether I would able to deliver within this organisation and made a judgement. I resolved my doubts through that process."

Journey from student to NUS chief

Blake's journey into the charity sector began during his own student years. He studied psychology at Cardiff University in the early 1990s and joined the gay and lesbian group there. "I helped to set up the Shag group, a sexual health awareness group that focused on HIV prevention," he says. During summer holidays, he took a job at youth summer camps in the US. "One day I heard a group of boys tell stories about how they thought babies were made and I thought I needed to have a conversation with them about this." This kind of thing made him feel that he wanted to work in the areas of sexual health and education.

The experience gained during his university years helped him to secure his first proper job as a sex education worker at the family planning charity FPA in the mid-90s, which led to 20 more years working in sexual health. "Did I expect that I would stay so long in sexual health? No. I expected that by now I'd be a qualified psychologist."

He says that one of the most invaluable career steps he took was a secondment at the Department of Health in 2004, when he was working at the National Children's Bureau. "I learned about cross-government politics and how each department does things its own way. I also learned about how you have real influence. You get that by being helpful, honest and solution- focused. Everyone who wants to be a senior manager in the voluntary sector could benefit from a stint in government; and everyone in government wanting to work effectively with the voluntary sector could benefit from a stint working for a charity."

Blake will need to call on his years of dealing with government in his new role. A matter of days after this interview, the NUS was in the news after Prime Minister David Cameron, during a speech about extremism, criticised it for its links with Cage, the human rights advocacy group. Blake's press office says he won't be personally drawn into argument, leaving it to the NUS student body to deny that it has any form of relationship with the group.

During his time at Brook, Blake was frequently quoted in the media and appeared to relish the attention. So won't he miss such a high profile when working for an organisation where the student president generally does the star turns? He replies that part of the attraction of the role was the "shared leadership model" and the fact that the students represent themselves. He also points out that Brook increasingly became driven by the "views and voices of young people" during his time there.

Until he stepped down in May after seven years, Blake had chaired Compact Voice, the representative body that encourages effective partnerships between the voluntary sector and national and local government through the use of the Compact agreement. The Compact has been heavily criticised by some for failing to get a fairer deal for the voluntary sector. Blake disputes that the Compact has failed. "The basic principles are still valid," he says. "It has also played a major role in achieving some of the changes that have been made, such as improvements in commissioning guidance, procurement legislation and the introduction of the social value act.

"Could we have shouted more about when it was broken? Yes, but would that have had more benefit? I don't think so. It was never going to save every community group."

Blake is critical of the lobbying act and the restrictions it places on charity campaigning in the run-up to elections. He joined the NUS only two days before the general election, but says that the act was high on the agenda for the charity. "It doesn't do what it was designed to do," he says. "It created a situation where those who had the resources to get the right legal advice carried on doing what they would have done but at greater cost; but those who had less resources censored themselves, even if it didn't apply to them."

Taking on government

Charities have come under repeated attacks from politicians and the media in recent times over some of their fundraising methods. The NUS does not directly raise funds from the public, but Blake admits to being frustrated by the attacks. "Sometimes I just have to turn the Today programme off and say let's have a different conversation," he says. "It worries me that we often start from the position of mea culpa rather than a position of explaining what we do and how we do it – and that the solutions proposed are more about regulation than explanation. We have to find better ways to get people to understand."

Some in the sector have been disappointed by the response to such attacks by the leadership of infrastructure organisations such as the NCVO and the chief executives body Acevo. Blake says he's reluctant to judge people on the statements they make to the media, but adds: "I believe that they will have done things that have the sector's best interests at heart. But is it time to think about a fundamental repositioning in the way that we work with government? The answer is probably yes. If that's so, it will require much more coordination and collaboration between sector bodies to take on government properly when there are challenging issues that need to be tackled, resisted or protested about strongly."

For now his main priority is helping the NUS set priorities and achieve its aims, which is no small task, given that Blake says that "changing the world" is at the core of the charity's work. "One of the big issues at the moment is about the environment and divestment from fossil fuels. Between us, as a movement, we have to decide whether we put our resources there or whether is there something else we should be doing, such as protecting the disabled student allowance. Everyone says that you should do less and prioritise, but only as long as you prioritise what they want. That's the challenge."

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