“Our college gives hope to others all over the country. It shows them that you can be a state institution, working with a diverse range of young people who aren’t all traditionally academic, and still be deemed to be outstanding,” says Angela Williams, principal of Huddersfield New College (HNC). “You can still win a Tes award and be an example to others.”
Looking at HNC's exam results – in 2019, a 100 per cent pass rate for A level and vocational courses, 50 per cent on A Level achieving A*, A and B – it becomes obvious why it’s rated as "outstanding" by Ofsted. Dig a little deeper, and it’s obvious why it won Sixth Form College of the Year at 2019’s Tes FE awards.
Background: Huddersfield New College wins Tes FE Award 2019
HNC is based in West Yorkshire, and the community it serves – Kirklees – is in the most severe third of local authorities in terms of deprivation. A quarter of students at the college receive a means-tested bursary.
It is based on the same street as Greenhead College, an outstanding sixth form college which only offers A-level provision, and Williams says that it’s hard being in such close proximity to a provider with a national reputation for excellence – in the past, the college was seen as the poor relation, she says.
But not anymore. “We’re now seen as a genuine alternative for young people in this town. The other colleges, there’s no doubt that they are excellent, but if young people want something different to pure A levels, they come to us.”
Five strands of success
Williams, who’s been principal of the college for 12 years, says that there are five key strands to the college’s success. The diversity of their curriculum, and the equal importance placed on all qualifications is the first.
The colleges offers both A level and applied general provision, and students can take both at the same time – in fact, 70 per cent of the college do so.
Kam Rogerson, an assistant principal at HNC with responsibility for BTEC, says that it’s the time and energy put into the vocational qualifications by both staff and students that makes their provision so outstanding.
“Vocational qualifications are not the second-class citizens to A levels. They’re harder because those learners have got to be able to manage their time, meet deadlines, conduct research, write it up, stand in front of their peers and do a presentation. Not many A-level candidates do that,” she says.
Staff training is the second strand. Although funding is tight, Williams says that her staff training and development budget is almost sacrosanct.
“We invest in our staff, they are the most valuable resource we have. I can’t possibly do everything, you have to have really good people around you, because you work alongside others and through others,” she says.
The training reflects current education policy – last year, because of the introduction of linear exams in A level, sessions were about memory for learning, metacognition and mental health with staff.
A strong work ethic is the third focus – Williams says that all of her staff work incredibly hard for the pupils, and in turn, teach them to be hard workers themselves. “Not everyone is going to be on X Factor or, God forbid, Love Island,” Williams laughs. “It’s not possible for everyone to get those high-earning salaries through sponsorship deals – it’s through hard work. That’s a value we give to our young people.”
Her college is ordinary, she says, but it does extraordinary things because of the exemplary work ethic that is so deeply embedded.
The fourth strand is being highly self-critical. “We’re not perfect, but we are willing to learn and do things better. We don’t stand still, we’re not complacent,” says Williams. She tells staff to use one key benchmark at all times: they should ask themselves, if this was my child, would it be good enough?
The final strand is sharing practice. The college constantly looks outward to other what institutions are doing well and in turn, open its doors to the FE sector. After winning the award, the college was inundated requests for visits. And Williams says, she was happy to accommodate them.
“We’re not trying to set ourselves up as paragons of virtue, but we’re really good at sharing what we do. I want every young person in the UK to have the best state education possible – if we as a college have areas of excellence that others can come and look at and it helps make that possible, then that is a job done well,” she says.
A depth of diversity
And then there’s a golden thread that runs through the lot: diversity. It’s something that many colleges – and businesses – fail to achieve and something that HNC does extremely well. So well, in fact, that students don’t even realise it’s happening.
“It’s just always been that way, I’ve never seen the alternative,” says Emily Drake-Brockman, a head student at HNC.
The college is viewed as completely inclusive – but it takes a lot of hard work to pull off.
It began with the Equality Act in 2010: when introduced, HNC decided to take a proactive approach towards inclusivity. At the core are two teams of 20 diversity champions: one staff and one student. Erika Montgomery is the college’s director of equality and diversity: she brings the teams together to work towards the college’s diversity strategy.
This year, the teams will run two diversity weeks: the first, in November, will be about hidden disability. Then there’s the annual respect competition, the focus groups with students, the sessions with partner organisations in which best practice is shared. The college has a clear code of conduct that clearly states everyone is to be respectful and inclusive – every single person who steps through their door has to agree to it before being allowed access.
“It’s in every strand of our college. In every interview, everyone’s asked a question on equality and diversity. It really underpins everything. I can’t go through a list, because it’s literally in everything. We don’t miss anything out. There are nine protected characteristics, and we don’t just celebrate one – we celebrate all nine,” says Montgomery.
Huddersfield football club, too, has benefitted from HNC’s approach. Staff from the club came into the college and were trained by Montgomery on inclusion. She spoke to them about everything from having a food menu that caters for vegans and those who eat halal meat only to having toilets that caters for everyone. The college has named as the club’s officially equality partner.
That’s just one of many accolades: the college is also number one in the National Centre for Diversity’s 2019 Top 100 Index.
T levels and Brexit
HNC isn’t without its challenges. Funding, of course, is a major one. The other, unsurprisingly, is the introduction of T levels.
“The government have got a model in their mind that is A levels and T levels. For a college like us, where we offer a significant suite of applied generals, if it's a stark choice between the two, then tell me, where is our place in the post-16 world,” Williams asks.
Even if they were able to offer T levels – which Williams says they simply haven’t got the resources to do so – the work placement aspect of the course would be a huge issue. The economic structure for quality placements needed does not exist in Huddersfield.
Brexit, too, worries Williams – the college enters an Erasmus bid each year, and offers work experience abroad. They send students to Sweden, Dublin and Poland – and in turn, host foreign students in Huddersfield. The opportunity gets students out of the community, and opens their eyes to other cultures. The money, she says, is safe for next year. But, she asks, who knows after that?
Williams, like other principals, can do nothing but wait and see. With retirement on the horizon, she may be no longer be in education when these challenges are resolved. But she says that when that day comes, the Tes award will be one of the things she’s most proud of.
“When I retire and I look back, I’ll always be so chuffed that for a year, we were the top sixth-form college. It’s the one that everyone wants, and we got it.”