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Great Expectations

I’ve had the privilege of working with Colchester Institute for the past few months and, during that time, I’ve got to know the new Principal and Chief Executive Alison Andreas… and it’s been an education. She’s a one-woman powerhouse and force for good.

If you were to ask Alison what she likes best about her work, she’ll smile and tell you it’s all about the people. And, when you walk around the three campuses at Colchester, Clacton and Braintree, you realise she means it. The staff know her and greet her with affection, as do many of the students, and they’re all on first name terms. Not bad when you consider that, since her appointment in April this year, Alison is managing 800 staff and 12,000 students and she’s still smiling.

Ever since she eschewed using her French degree from Oxford University in favour of a graduate traineeship at United Biscuits, it’s always been about the people, their abilities, their aspirations and how to help them realise their potential. Her focus hasn’t changed, she just has a lot more territory to cover. Was a role in education her destiny; her mother had been a teacher after all? No, it was love, in the shape of Costa, her future husband, and also a United Biscuits employee. They met at a management development conference but Costa was living in Colchester while Alison had moved to Broxburn in Scotland to recruit and train office staff at a brand new factory. The scale of her remit was vast but her commitment total and, after six months, the office was running as efficiently as the production line. She was also commuting at weekends to Colchester to see Costa and, when they got engaged, she decided to find work that didn’t involve a 950-mile round trip. In 1991, she became the Training Officer at a factory in Haughley Park, Suffolk, which made recipe dishes for M&S. She also married Costa. To ensure she was delivering the very best training to staff Alison enrolled on a teacher training course at Suffolk College. But she didn’t stop there, for the next four years she carried on gaining more qualifications in teaching and HR management, alongside her day job. Juggling clearly wasn’t an issue for Alison. In fact you get the very strong sense that she’s a bit of a trouper, but when you know that she also had breast cancer in 1993 and still carried on working and studying, “trouper” seems a rather lame description.

So how did Alison come to work for Colchester Institute in the first place? It’s thanks to Costa again, as Alison explains: “He’d taken voluntary redundancy from United Biscuits and decided to retrain as a fitness instructor, which he did at the Colchester campus. As I got to know more about the College, the concept of “changing lives” really excited me; when the vacancy for its very first Training and HR Manager was announced, I had to go for it.”  It was 1997, she’d just had her first child, daughter Anna, and she got the job.

Moving from the private to the public sector was a bit of a culture shock. The cut and thrust of business was replaced by what Alison can only describe as the Debating Society. “Things moved very slowly and you didn’t always feel that everyone was pulling in the same direction. Still, I was the new girl, and thought that perhaps this is how it works in education.” She wasn’t a new girl for long and, over the next 16 years, she worked with every single department at the college, only having five months’ maternity leave when she had her son Marcus, and taking on greater responsibilities whenever she could. In 2008, after a series of promotions, she became Director of Quality and Operations East and a member of the Senior Management Team. This should have been a good year for Alison but, like the physicists at Cern who were looking forward to creating the Higgs boson particle that year, nothing went according to plan. Colchester Institute, built in 1952, was in much need of extension and refurbishment and, when it was successful in bidding for an £83 million fund from the now-defunct Learning and Skills Council’s Building Colleges for the Future programme, everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.  “The diggers rolled in, new buildings went up and others were demolished. Then we got a phone-call telling us to stop all the work because the funding was cancelled. We’d already spent £40 million. We could only recoup £12.5 million from the Government, which left us with a massive debt of over £27 million and a campus that looked like a building site.”

When the going gets tough, the tough get going and that’s just what Alison and the Senior Team did. Thanks to financial acuity and general belt tightening the College was able to meet the challenge of over £7.5 million of debt servicing costs in four years. But what about the buildings, some of which were no longer fit for purpose? Good news was finally on its way, although it took five years. The College secured a total of £10 million in Government grants, contributing a further £3 million of its own funds, to allow completion of the first stages of a new capital development plan and giving Colchester Institute the £13 million facelift it deserves. During 2014/15 students will have a brand new reception area and eight new classrooms; by September 2015 a new four-storey teaching block will be ready.

At the same time as funds were being released Alison became Acting Principal and Chief Executive and was appointed to the post in March this year. She’s taken advantage of this position to create a smaller management team and, with a more nimble and focused group, decision-making is faster and everyone is pulling in the same direction.

“Running a vocational college has never been such a financial challenge as it is today. But for me the real challenge is helping 12,000 students be the best they can be. I love the knowledge that through our work we have the potential – and the privilege – to be able to change lives for the better.” Alison believes it’s all too easy  to forget just how much is achieved, so she’s become the “good news girl” and sends out a fortnightly bulletin to remind staff and governors alike just how amazing they and their students are. But then so is Alison. Her working day starts at 7.00 am and generally finishes around 7.00 pm. In the past month alone she’s attended five student awards presentations, given 16 presentations to parents and prospective students and still had time to serve at two staff barbecues. While this schedule might sound arduous to many of us, you can’t help feeling that Alison is enjoying every minute of it; that she’s found her true vocation. But away from work, it’s strictly family time and the two-week summer holiday is when she can really switch off and relax. So what does she do? She buys a travel guide and goes exploring. “I want to be prepared, I want to know everything so that I don’t miss an opportunity; the world is such an interesting place.” Speaking of books, she studied Great Expectations at A-level and it’s remained a firm favourite. Unlike Pip, the young gentleman with great expectations, she hasn’t waited for good fortune to be bestowed on her, she’s gone out and made it happen through an enquiring mind and a belief that everyone can learn given the right encouragement. She’s bringing her years of experience to bear on the future of thousands of students who all have, thanks to Alison and her very straightforward management style, great expectations too.

Colchester Institute fact file

Degrees:

  • 55 full and part-time degrees
  • 63% of degree students achieved a First or 2:1 in 2013
  • Lower tuition fees (£7,950 a year, most charge £9,000)
  • Places available on some undergraduate courses starting this September

Apprenticeships:

  • 1,000 apprentices on 40 different courses
  • Earn while you learn

Further Education:

  • 300 further education courses
  • Wide range of vocational subjects

Courses at all levels from pre-GCSE to Post-Graduate

 

 

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