When people in other parts of the UK hear the name Exeter, they are likely to recognise it for one of several things. Most often, it is either the Chiefs, the University of Exeter or Exeter College.
It is impossible to appreciate just how much of a contribution each of those organisations have made to the unique growth story of Exeter and, along with many others, deserve to be recognised and thanked for their vision and commitment to the city.
So, on a recent Winter’s morning, I was delighted to secure a couple of hours in the diary of to find out more about him, his time at the college and also their beautifully simple vision: to be an exceptional college.
10 Years At Exeter College
I was interested to find out early on in our conversation that the very same week that I was interviewing John was the same week that he would be celebrating his tenth anniversary at the college.
It felt almost serendipitous that he had the opportunity to take an hour or two out of his hectic schedule to be interviewed, take stock of his decade of service and discuss his personal and organisational goals for the next ten years.
John grew up in North Devon (High Bickington) on a family farm and, although he enjoyed his time at school, fully anticipated that he would go and work on the family farm after leaving school. It wasn’t necessarily a passion of his, but he was good at it and it felt the natural course to take.
With a knowing smirk, he commented,
Most of my primary and secondary school reports read something like ‘John is a lovely boy but doesn’t really apply himself!’.
However, life was to deal John and his family a cruel blow when, at the age of just fifteen, his dad passed away suddenly. This threw his future plans into turmoil and, after real consideration, John finished his studies and embarked on a career in construction.
John's Success As An Apprentice
He applied for an apprenticeship which he successfully secured, before impressively being given control of his first building site at the fledgling age of nineteen.
Not only was he given authority over the site, but he had full control of a Foreman’s Order Book – essentially the power to go into any builder’s merchant and purchase goods of any value.
I don’t imagine there are many nineteen-year-olds who are trusted with that sort of responsibility.
John was obviously a driven and trustworthy man, with real leadership potential, even at such a young age.
Outside of work, he had made his way up through the echelons of Shotokan Karate, becoming a black belt instructor.
By this point, he was twenty-six-years-old, single, with a sports car, a great job and an amazing hobby teaching martial arts.
Sports Car Sale Funds Teacher Training College
In what proved to be a great decision, John found himself at a crossroads, wondering if he wanted to work in construction for all of his life, or whether he wanted to follow his real passion that he had found through Karate, teaching and working with young people.
And, so, he sold his sports car to fund a year of Teacher Training College at the University of Greenwich in London, graduated and got a job at, what at the time was, North Devon College. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I found that my background in business, my work ethic learned on the family farm and my love for teaching were a bit of a ‘magic formula’. I was able to be analytical, organisational and operational all at the same time as making a difference on ‘the front line’. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better start to my career in education.
After successful roles in teaching and leadership, it was with great relish that John joined Exeter College in 2009 and became Principal and Chief Executive three years ago.
The Last Year Has Been A Stellar One For Exeter College
I was interested to find out that Exeter College was established in 1970 as the first tertiary college in the UK. The college celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, its Golden Jubilee, in 2020.
The college has established itself as one of the leading colleges in the UK, winning multiple awards and securing the highest possible Outstanding grading from Ofsted.
- the college’s best ever academic results,
- a top ranking for employer satisfaction,
- being named top college for STEM nation-wide and,
- with the support of the LEP, the official opening of a state-of-the-art £3million Advanced Engineering Centre.
- To cap it all, Exeter College was named as a finalist for the coveted title of ‘FE College of the Year 2019’ in the National Times Education Supplement FE Awards.
Moreover, based on most recent figures, it is estimated that the local economic impact generated by Exeter College is around £42.3million each year and they currently employ 1107 FTE staff.
Not surprising, when you take into account the fact that they provide education and training for a wide range of learners, ranging from School Leavers and University-Level to Apprenticeships and Adult-Learning.
They are a vital cog in the turning wheels that are Exeter and the South West.
Yes, we have excellent teachers, excellent students and an excellent reputation. I am very proud of our organisation. One of the most vital ingredients in our success, though, has been out ability to form and cultivate excellent partnerships within the city and the region. Any such relationship has to be mutually beneficial and both parties have to be motivated and energised to input significantly.
Otherwise, the partnership is either pointless or one party feels that they are pulling their weight more than the other. We are incredibly lucky to have meaningful and productive partnerships with many key stakeholders and organisations in Exeter, including Exeter Chiefs, Exeter City Football Club, The MET Office, Pennon Group, Devon County Council, Exeter City Council, the RD & E, the University of Exeter, swcomms and Flybe to name but a few. These partnerships allow us all (and Exeter) to win as a whole.
Collaboration The Key To Success
Central to this partnership mentality is the unique approach that Exeter College takes to working with Primary and Secondary schools in the city.
They have forged a collaborative, rather than competitive, relationship with them, whereby the college invites schools to co-design their entry criteria. This draws the multiple agendas of the schools in the city together, allowing them to have common goals and desired outcomes.
In turn, this also improves results at the college, as students who attend have already benefitted from similar learning outcomes and approaches to subject matter.
This brand of joined-up-thinking is incredibly attractive, and also incredibly functional and visionary.
After all, as John so rightly put it,
What is the point of us training and graduating excellent young people, but who are unemployable? Our students have to be trained with industry and business in mind, otherwise we fail in the most basic of our organisational responsibilities. There is nothing more satisfying in my role than seeing successful students of Exeter College go on to do great things in business, particularly locally.
This approach is so attractive, in fact, that, when John showed me a map of where their entire student-base are from, I was gob-smacked to see that they have students commuting daily from as far away as West-Cornwall, Yeovil and Gillingham.
The commuter-belt for Exeter College is not dissimilar to the commuter-belt for Exeter as a whole. If that doesn’t prove how attractive a proposition the college offers, I don’t know what will.
Talking of partnerships, John has been married to his wife Donna for nearly fourteen years now. Originally settling in Landkey, North Devon, they went on to have two boys, now aged ten and eleven-years-old before moving to Exeter eighteen months ago. Their most recent addition to the family is Bailey, the fox-red Labrador, who John described as
probably the nicest and most well-natured dog in the world.
To do the job that I do now, I couldn’t possibly do it without the support of my wife. She is truly fantastic and is a key part of our family unit functioning properly! I tend to work lots of evenings and weekends with college-related activity, and she is the constant, holding the fort down and keeping things ticking. I am incredibly grateful to her and couldn’t do my job without her.
Staying Sharp And Motivated
On a day-to-day basis, John’s role is varied and extremely busy. He made sure to tell me, though, that he never wants to feel distant from his staff team or student population. To do so would be to distance himself from some of the most vital feedback and input possible in their organisation.
To ensure that this doesn’t happen, the college have multiple ‘voices’ – student and staff groups that meet and give John direct feedback on key issues and raise important questions. This also allows for an open and honest discourse between John and the multiple groups that make up the college.
When I asked John how he stays sharp and motivated in his role, without delay he replied,
I have the most amazing staff and leadership team who do an excellent job of running their relevant parts of the organisation. They provide an outstanding learning experience to our incredible students. My job is simply to keep my finger on the pulse, keep casting vision for the future and make sure everyone is doing their part.
My favourite quote is by Canadian Ice-Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky who, when asked how he had become arguably the best player in the NHL said, ‘It’s simple. I just skate to where the puck is going to be’.
My team are probably getting sick of me saying that, but I completely believe it to be an excellent approach to leadership.
Making Waves Nationally And Internationally
Clearly, this is a mantra that John has taken to heart and that he swears by. His job isn’t about ‘keeping up’ but, rather, ‘getting ahead’. An impressive and inspiring mentality indeed.
As well as making a real impact on the local area, Exeter College is also making waves nationally and internationally. For example, both last year and this year, their 16-18-year-old rugby team have been selected by the RFU to represent England in a global rugby tournament in Japan.
This year, that happens to coincide with the Rugby World Cup being held in Japan, so this will add an extra level of international interest in the youth tournament too. Clearly, this is excellent news for Exeter College and Exeter as a whole.
Furthermore, Exeter College have recently partnered with a college in Shanghai, not for commercial gain but for sharing best practice and also to explore the technological advances in China which aren’t yet being implemented here in the UK.
This falls in line with Exeter College’s commitment to recruiting international students as well as local ones. In the last year, they have had ninety-one international students from twenty-six different countries, most notably with a number from Thailand. In fact, their Student of the Year (recently crowned at their annual awards event in January) was from Thailand.
Some international students then return to their country of origin, but some stay in Exeter to study further or to start their careers. Again, positive and exciting for Exeter and the South West region.
A College At The Heart Of Its Community
My observation, for what it is worth, is that Exeter is like a bunch of dots on a page, just waiting to be joined. Many of them have already been joined or are in the process of being joined.
But, the continued success, growth and thriving of Exeter relies on organisations like Exeter College strategically, purposefully and relentlessly creating connections, forming partnerships and moving forwards.
As the American actress Lauren Bacall once said, “Standing still is the fastest way to move backwards in a rapidly changing world.”
John. If the next ten years are anywhere near as successful as the last ten, then you’re in for a fun ride.
Thank you for the work that you and your team do to serve our city and we look forward to seeing Exeter College go from strength to strength in the future.
Joff Alexander-Frye, Group Editor-in-Chief at Grow Exeter Magazine
This interview was first published in Grow Exeter Magazine. Photography by Nick Hook