Success bolstered by the buzz of business
with its black-and-white decor, its state-of-the-art equipment and its young uniformed hairdressers, it could be any high-class London hair salon.
But step outside Francesco's and you're on the campus of Walsall College - all its stylists are full-time level 3students.
This is not simply giving trainee hairdressers a taste of the industry. The Midlands college's salon operates as a fully-fledged business with a Pounds 276,000 turnover. And on top of their studies, trainees can work up to 30 hours a week for which they get paid. When the college closes for the summer, the salon stays open, giving students extra experience and helping to fast-track them into the industry.
Sue Reynolds, head of the college's hair and beauty school, said: "The key is, it's a business. Whatever we do, we always think about education but we think about industry too - and, to my mind, industry comes first."
On a Thursday morning the big salon buzzes. It is full of customers with others waiting patiently in reception. The campus is very accessible, just across the road from Walsall's shopping centre. Mrs Reynolds set it up nine years ago after launching a partnership with salon chain the Francesco Group and the hair product company Wella. The college is now recognised as a centre of excellence by the industry body Habia.
Everything in the salon replicates the high street - students work with real customers who pay real prices for cutting and styling. They are set daily targets for selling hair products, which then go towards their assessments.
At levels 1 and 2 students work in the salon at least one day a week. Level 3 students spend most of their week there. Mrs Reynolds says this helps to fast-track trainees through their NVQs and into work. Meanwhile the incentive of pay boosts retention. Of its level 3 students, 95 per cent gain jobs as stylists. The salon has students working in teams, with those taking level 3 supporting and mentoring the less experienced. "So it's not just the staff doing the teaching." says Mrs Reynolds.
The salon employs a small number of qualified stylists from its students each year to act as role models. It also offers an HNC in management.
Students are regularly assessed and staff receive professional training from the Francesco Group and Wella. Employers also do spot checks - sometimes sending in "mystery customers".
The success of its hairdressing salon and an adjacent beauty parlour has led the college to set up a series of academies with other business partners, including Apple, Microsoft, Roland and Carillion.
For Mrs Reynolds, the success of her salon has brought her full circle. She did her own training at the college in the early 1970s. "I came in one day a week and learned the theory, but I learned my trade in the salon with my peers," she said.
"My dream was to get students to go from here saying, `I learned my craft at Walsall College and it's as good as anybody's'."
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