Although Carol Thomas has been in situ as Coventry College’s Principal and CEO since August 2020, she has yet to see it in full swing. After countless 70-hour long weeks planning the College’s transformation, Carol will finally get to see a full return to face-to-face learning in March, and to mark the occasion, she has outlined why brighter days are ahead for the city’s leading further education provider.
When I took up my post, the College had already been in lockdown for six months with most of its provision being delivered online, and against a backdrop of interim management, so the past few months have involved laying a springboard for future, long-term success at our city centre campus.
This has involved building up a new senior leadership team, whilst evaluating every process and procedure in the College to see if it is fit for purpose.
The College has been seeking a long-term leader for some time, so one of the challenges has been to show staff that I am here to stay, and I’m here to invest my time and experience into moving the College to where it needs to be.
That’s why it’s important that staff see and hear from me regularly. Subsequently at the end of every week I carry out briefings so everyone is hearing directly from me about what is happening on campus, and what we collectively need to focus on for the next week or month.
The College is undergoing a period of rapid change – which lends itself to having a leadership team that has a small, flat structure, because we all need to be getting things done in a way that can make best use of our experience and therefore make a meaningful impact.
We’ve brought Simon Crick on board as Vice Principal Finance and Resources to support myself and our Vice Principal for Business Growth, Engagement & Partnerships, Gemma Knott, which is a real coup for the College. We have one more appointment to make over the coming weeks – so our leadership team is nearly complete, and is one that is here to provide stability for the College over the coming years.
I am fairly new to the area and I have found that Coventry is such as unique city – as is the College – with around 97 per cent of our students all living in the city – which underlines the instrumental role that we have to play in the city’s fortunes.
Working with industry
The national focus of further education is about providing the next generation with the right level of training for jobs, so it is key that we as a College are working with employers to understand their needs, so we can create a meaningful pathway for our students which also fulfil employment needs.
We have now devised a three year plan around strategic skills to understand how we can meet those needs by growing the capabilities of our existing facilities and teaching staff.
Within Motor Vehicle, for example, we are investing in updating our curriculum to reflect the rise of electric battery technology and greener energies, as well as healthcare provision where there is a need for supported non-medical roles.
That in turn means we have to up-skill our staff so they are able to meet the changing demands of employers when delivering their teaching to students. Motor Vehicle again is a prime example – where we are currently up-skilling our teaching staff when it comes to electric battery technology and green energy, so that come September they are ready to work more closely with employers in the region marrying the curriculum to industry requirements.
Looking to the future, the risks are always to do with industry-wide issue of securing the right staff, and FE is still the poor relation in terms of salaries to attract the right tutors for specialist provision, when they could be earning substantially more out in the field – so they have to have that passion for teaching to want to work at a College.
Evolving to meet student demands
The College also has a large part-time adult cohort alongside full time 16 to 18 study. In terms of delivery, we have found that our adult cohort doesn’t want to be studying two evenings a week over a long period – the students prefer short, condensed courses so they can springboard into employment quickly – and this is a recent change that we are adapting to.
Last September we were inundated with applications for Construction, Engineering, Motor Vehicle – particularly Construction Trades, and we actually have a waiting list for Electrical Installation now. This is because these sectors are the few that haven’t really closed down – houses have continued to go up, while homeowners have spent disposable income on improving their properties.
The lockdown has given us an opportunity to look at the city centre campus which has been revamped – including decorating and the implementation of a new maintenance plan – which has been easier with fewer students on site; and I’m certain that when students return they will be blown away by the College’s appearance.
Virtual meetings are likely to stay for one-to-one catch-ups, but I think it becomes less acceptable for group meetings as people need a sense of the room and the dynamics of the meeting. I think people miss out on the communication outside of a meeting or networking, and even in a learning environment, college is so much more than just what you learn the classroom – it’s the social as-pect of communicating with people. You only get that if you’re on site or creating memories on trips.
The pandemic has put extra pressure on teaching staff, where they are face-to-face with learners on a screen, which simply is not the same as being in a classroom – all while trying to home school their own children – so they deserve a huge amount of credit for how well they have operated.
From a student point of view, we are ready to welcome them back and we have our own lateral flow testing team, which is expanding to meet the volume of students on site. Some people may not realise, but alongside most of our teaching moving to online during the lockdown, we have actually been open throughout the entire lockdown for our vulnerable learners, and those who aren’t fortunate enough to have remote access from home.
City Centre Campus vision
Having a single, city-centre campus from September 2021 with up to 8,000 students will really help us to create a vibrant and modern atmosphere where you will walk in and just think “wow”.
My vision for the College is to be somewhere that people would want to study and know that they are going to get high quality education.
From speaking to various city-wide stakeholders there is an issue within the city where children go through school life and don’t want to stay in the local area afterwards, and it’s up to us, as education providers, to work with other city-wide stakeholders to stem the level of people wanting to move away. We want and need them to develop and grow on our doorstep.
As a College we are really fortunate to have access to the Association of Colleges West Midlands group, which is where various colleges can share best practice and identify areas for growth – and this collaborative approach is going to be really important for us as we continue our transformation journey over the coming years.
Coventry College is a really exciting place to work – staff are starting to see a change now as a re-sult of the time and investment being paid to them as individuals, which, in turn, positively impacts the service that is being provided to our students.