Our Leadership Team

These are the people responsible for the day to day running of Activate Learning.

A warm welcome from our leadership team

Activate Learning is led by a well-established Group Executive Team, which enjoys both breadth and depth in professional and management experience. This team are responsible for the strategic management of the Activate Learning group, and are supported by a strong Group Leadership Team, comprising Directors from across the business.

At Activate Learning we are well known for developing talented people who are sought after by businesses around the world. This is because we go beyond giving you great qualifications. Our focus is on building the mindset, attributes and skills that are most relevant for the ever-changing workplace, and developing you personally so you open up future career and life possibilities you cannot yet imagine.

Sally Dicketts CBE

Group Chief Executive, Activate Learning

Our Leadership Team

Sally Dicketts Group Chief Executive

Sally has held senior posts in both secondary schools and further education for many years and is a tireless campaigner and advocate for the learning and skills sector. She is a board member of the Education and Training Foundation, Pearson’s board and deputy chair of the LEP skills board. She use to chair the Women’s Leadership Network and was the chair of the Employment Committee of the Association of Colleges. She is a member of the Oxfordshire Management Club, All Souls Group and is a leading thinker for the National Education Trust. Sally was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Honours list in July 2013.

Her main area of interest is in how people learn, mindfulness and how to develop more entrepreneurial innovative individuals.

She became Principal at Milton Keynes College in 1996, and in 2003 became the first Principal of Oxford & Cherwell Valley College. In 2013 she became the first Chief Executive of Activate Learning, bringing together in one group, three FE Colleges, three UTCs, two 11-18 secondary schools, a studio school, a training provider delivering apprentices, training and consulting in the workplace, and a specialist engineering training provider.

In her free time, Sally enjoys travel, cycling, Zumba and spending time with her partner and daughter.

Lee Nicholls Deputy CEO Activate Learning

Lee Nicholls is Deputy CEO of Activate Learning and is responsible for curriculum; curriculum planning; teaching & learning; and quality improvement and standards across several Further Education colleges. He is also the founding CEO of the Activate Learning Education Trust (ALET) of seven schools, and now co-chair of the ALET Trust Board. Most notably in this role, Lee has established two successful University Technical Colleges (UTCs) in Reading and South Oxfordshire and a Studio School in Bicester, as a means of raising the profile of technical secondary education linked to local business needs and employment opportunities.


Over a career spanning more than 30 years, Lee has held a number of senior posts in further and higher education, after starting out in education as a teacher of science. He has previously held the position of Pro Vice-Chancellor of Further Education at Thames Valley University and, as Executive Director of Further Education, was responsible for the Reading College Campuses when part of the University from 2004 up until 2010.


Lee has held a number of voluntary positions. He has been Chair of the UTC Reading Board of Governors, Chair of UTC Oxfordshire, Chair of an Open College Network accreditation body, Chair of the Economic Development committee for Reading and Governor of Oxford Spires Academy secondary school in Oxford as it transitioned to become an academy.


Lee is science graduate and MBA alumnus of Henley Business School. Throughout his career he has gained considerable experience of change in complex multi-sector organisations, and in the delivery of 'more than the sum of the parts' through the power of partnership. In his spare time, Lee enjoys travel and road cycling after a long career in veteran’s football.

Bernard Grenville-Jones Group Executive Director

Bernard has been one of Activate Learning’s Group Executive Directors since 2015. Bernard is regional lead for Oxfordshire and is responsible for the Lifestyles Faculty; for the International Division, including Managing Director for Saudi-based company The Oxford Partnership; for Commercial Operations including food outlets, salons, gyms; for Innovation and Development, including leading Group Merger Bids since joining; and for the group-wide network of Career Pathways Directors.

From 2011, and before becoming an Executive Director, Bernard held non-executive posts for Activate Learning as Governor; Chair of Group Audit and Risk Assurance; Chair of City of Oxford College Advisory Board; and inaugural Chair for Activate Enterprise Limited. Before working full-time in education, Bernard spent over 25 years building businesses in financial services consulting and software, and has been a Fellow of the Institute of Directors for over 15 years. He has an honours degree in Business and Management and spent an additional undergraduate year at Warwick University studying Computer Systems Engineering.

Bernard thoroughly enjoys helping people to develop and succeed, with a keenness to work alongside a team of brilliant students, staff and partners at Activate Learning. Outside of work, Bernard enjoys family, food and the great outdoors.

Cheri Ashby Group Executive Director

Cheri oversaw and led on the successful merger, transition and integration of Guildford College Group into Activate Learning. Cheri is responsible for the Lifeskills faculty and is strategic lead for Safeguarding for the Group. With over 25 years’ experience in the Further Education sector, Cheri has undertaken a number of different roles, including teacher, course leader, and curriculum manager, Assistant Principal teaching, learning and quality, Head of Campus and most recently as Group Executive Director. Cheri has also been a member of the ATG Board for the past year.

Cheri enjoys being part of a large group committed to transforming lives through education. During her employment at Activate Learning, Cheri has had ongoing opportunities to ‘learn on the job’; she is a champion of Activate Learning’s Philosophy and is delighted that the organisation continues to retain a strong focus on learners, learning, curriculum design and delivery.

In her spare time, Cheri enjoys a number of activities, including travelling (Asia being a particular area of interest), sailing, gardening and reading.


Fiona Stilwell Managing Director of Activate Apprenticeships

Fiona Stilwell, Managing Director of Activate Apprenticeships and Business School has over 19 years specialising in the Apprenticeship Sector. Activate Apprenticeships delivers apprenticeships, training and consulting to clients across the UK, with a range of specialisms including engineering and leadership. Being passionate about Apprenticeships Fiona is also a non-executive director of DiVA Apprenticeships and on the board for ALPS (Apprenticeship provider network).

Sharing experience is important to Fiona in continuing to deliver social mobility and productivity for employers in an uncertain market. She demonstrates this through her active involvement in influencing the AoC policy consultations, most recently Provider Earnings Limit and sharing experiences as a lead provider with employers trailblazer groups to develop specialist and higher level engineering Standards.

Jon Adams Group Executive Director

Jon is one of Activate Learning’s Executive Directors, with responsibility for the Technology Faculty and Higher Education. Spending the first twelve years of his career in the welfare to work sector for businesses, Jon worked to help long-term unemployed people back into work. Starting out as an Employment Advisor, Jon progressed through various management roles with Ingeus UK (a private provider of employment support services), to become Director of Operations and subsequently Director of Business Development. In 2015 Jon was appointed as CEO of ATG Training, which became part of Activate Learning in 2017 and has since been fully integrated into the organisation.

Jon enjoys working for an organisation that aspires to provide more than just technical training and education, but instead seeks to prepare people for successful careers. He is especially proud of Activate Learning’s work with many young people who have not previously had a positive experience of education. Jon has always been passionate about providing services that make a positive difference to people’s lives, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Paul Newman Group Executive Director

As Executive Director and regional lead for Berkshire, Paul is responsible for contributing to Activate Learning’s strategic plan, as well as overseeing the region’s key stakeholder relationships, student experience, and the overall effective operations. Having worked with Activate Learning for twenty-two years, Paul has progressed through a number of different roles, including technician support, teacher, manager, senior manager, director, assistant principal and principal (interim).

During his time working with Activate Learning, Paul has enjoyed the support and development opportunities available, as well as the chance to be challenged, particularly when overseeing the Bracknell merger. The variety of work, the people (both colleagues and students), the direction of the organisation and having a manager who invests time into his development are also important elements of Paul’s role at Activate Learning. A significant part of Paul’s interest in his work is also the aspect of understanding people, relationships and behaviours.

Outside of work, Paul’s pastimes include home improvement, motorcycling, walking, cycling and spending time with family.

Steve Ball Chief Financial Officer

As Chief Financial Officer, Steve’s main responsibilities include establishing and delivering a group financial strategy, as well as line managing all financial processes within the Group. Steve is also responsible for the line management of IT and Property & Estates and leading on the merger processes (legal and financial structuring) for Bracknell & Wokingham and Guildford.

Steve has significant experience in leadership roles in Retail (Marks & Spencer), Supply Chain (DHL) and Education (SEMTA), and is also a qualified accountant.

In terms of his role with Activate Learning, Steve takes a keen interest in driving change and making a difference. He believes that he is able to use his financial experience and expertise to generate value, knowing that the organisation is helping people to become employable. Steve also takes pride in leading and developing teams, and ensuring that finance (and similar functions) are ‘partners’ to the organisation and supporting and improving decision making – rather than operating as remote disengaged ‘experts’.

In his free time, Steve enjoys good food and wine, spending time with family and friends, travelling, sport (with a particular interest in football) and theatre.