Julie Mills driving education in Milton Keynes for thirty years

September 1, 2020
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Thirty years ago today (1st September), Dr Julie Mills OBE first walked through the doors of Milton Keynes College. Today she is Group Principal and CEO commanding enormous respect in the city and the wider world of education, but when she was a teenager herself such a future seemed unlikely. 

Not keen on the classroom she dropped out of her sixth form college and went to work at a Job Centre dealing with unemployment benefit claimants of which there were many in the 1980s. 

Deciding there must be more to life she started a day release course at Barnfield College in Luton learning to be a bookkeeper.  Having achieved the then equivalent of a BTEC she enrolled on an Open University course aged twenty-one and graduated with a BASc Hons.  By chance a tutor suggested she give some evening bookkeeping classes for fellow students and realised what a wonderful place the classroom could be.  As fate would have it those classes were held at the school at which she had previously walked away from education. 

Bitten by the bug she trained part-time as an adult education teacher and took a job with the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro), where she taught employability skills while still teaching her evening bookkeeping classes.  She moved to Milton Keynes College in 1990.  Three years later she put her experience with Nacro to good use as the College’s deputy head of education at nearby Woodhill prison.  Shortly after that she masterminded a bid for a contract with the Ministry of Justice to provide offender learning in multiple prisons around the country.  Milton Keynes College is still one of the key contractors today looking after various institutions including the high security estate. 

Dr Mills was made chief executive in 2011 and has overseen improvements whereby the College’s Ofsted rating has moved from “satisfactory” grade 3 to grade 2 “good” in 2017.  The principal who gave her her first job was noted educationalist Dr Ann Limb CBE DL, who was also a great mentor for her.  Dr Limb says, “I knew Julie Mills (or Glenister as she was) was a gem when I interviewed her for her first teaching role as Lecturer in Business Studies.  What struck me about Julie then, as it still does today, was her natural grace and ability to get on with people, treating everyone with the same humanity, compassion, care and fairness.

“She helped me significantly change the culture of the College thirty years ago, turning it into a place that put students and learning at the heart of everything. Through her leadership and resilience, she has nurtured and grown a ‘whole person centred’ culture throughout the College and across the wider community of Milton Keynes. I feel privileged to know her, to call her a friend of thirty years and to have been able to witness how over three decades she has built magnificently on the foundations I laid during my ten years at MK College.  

Dr Mills launched the successful bid for funding for an Institute of Technology (IoT) as the lead partner in a consortium which includes Microsoft, KPMG and many others and which welcomes its first students this month.  She has also involved the College in supporting plans for a university in the city (MK:U) under the aegis of Cranfield University which is also an anchor partner in the IoT project. 

EDI has always been a great passion and last year she was named Principal of the Year by the National Centre for Diversity.  In the same year she was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List receiving an OBE.  She is a trustee of the Milton Keynes Islamic Art and Heritage charity and has been a mentor for the Black Leadership Initiative and is Chair of Women Leaders UK which aims to promote and encourage female leadership and to support diversity.  In her inexhaustible enthusiasm she also is a director of the MK Business Leaders Partnership and a co-owner and Director of Border Engineering Limited, a company based in Luton which was founded by her father.  A passionate MK Dons fan she is a former vice-chair of the English College’s Football Association and has represented English Colleges on the FA’s Development Committee. 

Dr Mills is currently Chair of Trustees for the Helena Kennedy Foundation.  Baroness Kennedy QC says of her, “Julie has been a great leader in further education and a champion of social justice. She has been a wonderful ally of the Helena Kennedy Foundation which seeks to provide financial support and mentoring to disadvantaged people pursuing education against the odds. I pay tribute to her and take my hat off for all that she has achieved with love and good wishes to a terrific woman. 

Her talents and commitment are not lost on the College’s current chair of governors, David Meadowcroft who says, Julie leads the College from a valuesbased perspective.  The College values are Julie’s values and whether she is setting the strategy or talking to individual students, she looks to inspire and motivate.   Julie is a role model in the community promoting equal opportunities for women and women in management.  Her leadership of the College inspires those around her and she takes every opportunity to support, mentor and encourage the women leaders of the future.  

“It has been said many times that Julie is passionate about promoting diversity and ensuring equal opportunities for all students and I see this in action every time we work together.  This has been particularly important during the recent Covid lockdown.  Her priority was to ensure that all students, especially those who may not have access to equipment or were finding it difficult to work at home, had all the support the College could provide.  

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