From education to employment

Facing reality with resilience at Weston College

Dr Paul Phillips CBE, Principal and Chief Executive, Weston College

It is January 2022, and my College is back and delivery of excellence in curriculum is at the top of the agenda. Staff are geared up for what we hope is a buoyant new year and we are spinning a lot of plates! The ongoing COVID issues are an obstacle, but in most cases, we can mix and match our delivery so as to maximise the potential of our learners and utilisation of resources. The issue of mental health and wellbeing is massive, the inspiration and commitment from my staff is great but what can we do to ensure stability?

The reality is that we have a foot now firmly wedged on the accelerator, but the roadmap is altering for rough terrain and tight last minute sharp bends designed to test the resilience of everyone on the team bus. But we are a team and with so many projects to bid for and manage, it is now an even wider portfolio of provision that is under scrutiny. But we are getting round this by engaging and getting sensational input from lower management tiers who are really stepping up to the plate in terms of problem solving. Equally, COVID staff absences; the inability to recruit staff in the marketplace; and moreover ensuring equilibrium between our quality assurance and our financial capacity is a major threat. However, this is where our foresight in creating our new graduate entry scheme for teachers and trainers has been paramount together with our in house recruitment agency Forward Futures which has played a vital role for business continuity. In this regard, as the staffing realities of ‘living with the virus’ kick in, I would urge all education providers to think outside of the box in terms of growing their own and long term contingency planning for the ‘people’ category of the risk register.

However, I am also still on a learning curve because our screening, support and IAG for learners has also had to change – estimated grades are bringing home the need to forget about overinflation and to re-establish the starting point for so many learners. Then and only then do we have the chance to grasp opportunity and provide meaningful packages of learning. Despite this I detect a sense of optimism from our young people and adults. Our new careers Excellence Hubs are bringing industry into the classroom for a highly immersive ‘careers not courses’ experience – ensuring learners are working towards a WorldSkills aspiration to be trained to excellence rather than just competence.

In terms of wellbeing, let’s not dress it up any further. Everyone is struggling. I have learnt resilience is not just about building just your own. We all have a role to play in building the resilience of others. A kind word here; encouraging laughter; taking an extra moment to praise; checking in on colleagues can really make the difference to everyone’s day.

The spring term dawns – and my College and I are on a journey of change but with the learner at its heart and we are not taking any prisoners! If I have a worry it is at what point do all our plans, and the many learner journeys converge? My hope is that convergence can occur in a smooth and planned manner, but how well are our journeys shared and understood across departments? There is always work to be done here.

And so, I assemble my jigsaw of change. It starts with an accurate assessment of where a learner is, it plans in conjunction with the learner (and the employer), a journey with support available academically and pastorally in a model where staff recruitment/banking and retention strategies are key. I overlay that with my quality processes again (adding many idiosyncrasies) and then I put all of this into a funding and audit framework that can make or break my whole vision for change.

So, do I get a buzz out of all this planning? More of a combination of excitement and chronic headache to be honest but when it is working it is plain to see. Every FE leader will tell you – it is a metric that numbers cannot define and is immediately recognisable in the look on the faces of my students, staff and stakeholders. It is the precise moment when everything is in balance; delivering an inclusive, learner centric curriculum, from motivated staff working with employers; offering dynamic aspirational career pathways; creating learners who are personally thriving and displaying talent which is helping the economy grow. At this point we have achieved our mission of ‘ Creating Brighter Futures.’

I am part of the FE sector. We remain entrepreneurial, evolutionary and excited despite the uncertainty – why you say? Because we face reality with resilience!

Dr Paul Phillips CBE, Principal and Chief Executive, Weston College

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