'The last of the polytechnics'

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Deprived students are flocking to an 'unusual beast' of a college that provides everything from basic skills to postgraduate work. Ngaio Crequer reports from Bradford.

TICKING off to Brad Pitt for smoking in the sauna must give you a bit of a buzz.

And providing beauty therapy to Leonardo Di Caprio, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sean Connery and...er, Chris Evans, is not bad for a day job either.

This is the reward for Sophie Steggles, who became a therapist to the stars after graduating with a BSc in beauty therapy and management from Bradford College, in West Yorkshire.

"She walked straight into a top job with a Knightsbridge hotel, working on a celebrity A-list," said Debbie Forsythe-Conroy, programme manager.

Another spectacular success is Ellen Horsman, in her final year of an HND beauty therapy course. She has secured a 10-day work placement in New York with media make-up specialist Tobi Britton. Ms Britton runs one of the leading training centres for make-up artists in New York, and has performed make-overs for former presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.

The beauty therapy courses are part of the department of pure and applied science at Bradford, judged as outstanding by the Further Education Funding Council.

This and the college's other departments have been extremely successful in helping the college to widen participation. Some 43 per cent of the college's students are from disadvantaged areas and Bradford does well at attracting people who would not normally attend college.

The college has 30,000 students, the second largest in the country, but the biggest "mixed-economy" college, says principal Alan Hodgson.

"I am still passionate about progression opportunities, the fact that we offer everything from basic skills to postgraduate courses. Sometimes it is tough to hang on to that educational vision.

"We have always resisted specialising in any one sector. We resisted splitting our further from our higher education. We did not break away from the education authority. We did not become a new university."

Being a broad church does not just help to ensure financial strength he says - though the college has been in category A (excellent health) since incorporation.

"I just don't like divides. We attach a great deal of value to the old word 'polytechnic'. We are the last of the plytechnics - a very unusual beast."

The evidence is there. Jeff Oakes had no formal qualifications; Karl Gray had one GCSE and was working in a car paint shop. They joined the access to higher education scheme in science and health professions. Five years later both had degrees in physiotherapy. As the college proclaims, the city of Bradford was at the heart of the industrial revolution. Now the college aims to be at the heart of the learning revolution.

The college's unique approach can be seen at its art school. A former dyeing shed for the textile industry has been converted into a state-of-the art studio and gallery, the Yorkshire Craft Centre, that provides some of the best facilities in the country for art and design.

The School of Art, Design and Textiles offers everything from graphics, drawing and painting, 3D, textiles, fashion, print electronic publishing, photography, ceramics and print-making. Again, students range from16-year-old school-leavers to those studying for a Masters degree.

The school scored a notable success recently when Campari ran a competition throughout Europe to create a new image for the drinks company. Bradford was one of six leading art schools selected to take part.

The company wanted to re-brand the image for 25-35 year olds. "Students had to consider the lifestyle and aspirations of the 25 year-old age group," said Simon Thorpe, deputy head of the school. "Campari has a history of working with artists and designers for decades. We had strict criteria - Is it interesting for students? Does it develop their creativity and help to create a contemporary real life design image? Is there good pocket money?" In fact each participating college receives three cash prizes and the overall student winner will get 1,000 Euros (pound;616) and a trip to Campari's headquarters in Monte Carlo.

The school is keen not to be seen as elitist. The gallery is open to the public and is both a resource and showcase for local artists.

"We believe strongly in opening ourselves up to the community," said Mr Thorpe.

The school reflects the college's focus on excellence across a wide range of achievement.

As Alan Hodgson puts it: "You do not have to focus and be specialist to be excellent. We aspire to be excellent across the board," he said, no doubt to no minister in particular.

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