Last year a student of mine, Alex Tucker, made headlines after sneaking one of his paintings into Banksy’s Dismaland installation here in Weston-super-Mare and presenting it to the artist’s manager. Banksy was so impressed by Alex’s chutzpah that he gave him one of his own pieces as a gift in return, along with some encouraging feedback. I suspect that Banksy recognised a kindred spirit: someone with an entrepreneurial streak who is not afraid to use his imagination and take risks.
I could not be prouder: Alex has flourished since he came to Weston College, having underachieved at school as a result of his dyslexia. Since Dismaland, he has gone from strength to strength and is now well on his way to achieving his ambition of becoming a professional artist.
Alex sums up the enterprise ethos I have been trying to foster at the college these past 15 years: seeking to bring about change in one of the most deprived areas of the country through inspiration and innovation.
Today, we have three campuses, with a fourth opening in September, and offer degree courses in conjunction with the University of the West of England and Bath Spa University. In November, we achieved university centre status in our own right. As with other coastal towns and cities – such as Aberystwyth and Swansea in my native Wales – education is helping to grow the economy, and the boost to the area from a thriving student population is obvious. The seaside is changing: it is no longer a place just to walk along the prom and contemplate. It is a place where people can gain skills for life.
In Weston, we have achieved this through strong partnerships: with other colleges and schools; with employers and industry; and with local and national government bodies. Our links with employers mean that they tell us the skills they will need in a few years and we provide the courses that will ensure there is an appropriately qualified group of people for them to choose from.
We have been very careful not to have a scattergun approach. Making sure that the courses will lead to employment has been crucial – for example, degrees in business, management and creative industries where there are major jobs locally, plus public services and sports. We are preparing people for these jobs. We are talking with these employers and know what they are looking for.
If you can create a model of learning that gives opportunities to someone from the age of 4 through to higher education, knowing that they are also significantly supported by bigger partners in terms of the key universities, and that your method of entry and support allows everybody a fair chance, then you have a very successful skills model for the future.
Almost a year on from Dismaland, it feels as though change is in the air. The disused lido that was home to the exhibition is undergoing a £550,000 facelift and reopens this month with a series of summer concerts.
Meanwhile, a few steps down the promenade, ownership of the town’s Winter Gardens Pavilion has been transferred to Weston College for £1. The dilapidated 1920s building is currently being restored to its former glory for use by the community, and a 1980s extension at the rear is being transformed into a law and professional services academy and university centre. The project will cost £16 million and, when complete, the new campus will offer a range of courses to meet the demands of the West of England’s legal, professional services and financial sectors.
The new centre, like Dismaland, which brought in £20 million in extra revenue and more than 150,000 visitors to Weston-super-Mare, shows that even “lost causes” can have new life with a bit of creative thinking.
Paul Phillips is principal of Weston College