I’m working on the college’s self-assessment report, which is probably the most important document I have to write all year. It helps us check on how we’re doing and ensure continual improvement, and it’s also key to Oftsted in helping them to assess risk and plan for inspection.
I’m Vice Principal of Transforming Learning, so I’m here to ensure that everything to do with the classroom experience is excellent. The role is a lot about the curriculum – its design, its quality and making sure it meets the local needs of both students and employers. Generating income is another part of my remit and I’m also the nominee for inspection.
I qualified as a chartered accountant. After four or five years I took 6 months’ leave from work to teach at a university, loved it, and never went back. I wanted to transform people’s lives and realised this was a great way to do it.
I joined the local tertiary college as a lecturer, and over the course of several years, I worked my way up to senior tutor and finally head of school. I moved to John Ruskin College in 2010, taking on the job I hold now. When I joined the college, it was graded inadequate: three and a half years later it was graded outstanding, the fastest-ever transformation.
No such thing as a typical day – not where students are involved! But to make sure we keep improving, I focus on my staff on what we need to be tackling. There are staff meetings, one-to-ones and of course paperwork. There’s always some horizon-scanning too.
But by far the most important part of the day is getting out there and talking to students. Sometimes it’s a planned get-together, but mainly it’s just chatting on the way to a classroom, or maybe joining them in the canteen. I spent at least an hour a day doing this. For me, that’s a big part of the job. That’s where the impact is.
There are immediate things such as whatever student issues come up that day, or whether we need any staff cover. Then there are longer-term challenges: are the staff performing? Are the students performing? What’s the culture like and what do I want it to be like? And (like every other FE college) how shall we handle the latest policy and funding changes?
That’s easy – it’s walking around and talking to the learners. I also love standing at the front as they come in because four years ago I wouldn’t have got any eye contact: I might even have got sworn at. Now I get ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you, sir?’ It’s just so nice to see. But the best bit is actually sitting around with a group of students and having a proper chat.
It started with that first ‘temporary’ lecturing job. It was supposed to be just a career break, but I loved it. As for my current role, it spoke to my personal stand – I believe in transforming people’s lives and helping them achieve their dreams. When I walked around here, I just couldn’t understand why we were letting the area’s students down. We had around 1,000 young people learning here and we were an inadequate organisation: I felt they deserved better and I wanted to make a difference.
Part of being in the sector is you have to flex. When I came here my first goal was simply to take back the college. In my first year, we permanently excluded 6% of the students, and the first year was purely about setting a new culture and raising aspirations. Now we exclude nowhere near that.
The role itself hasn’t changed, because that has always been to ensure outstanding teaching and learning and setting a culture of high standards and high aspirations. But moving from an inadequate college to an outstanding one means that the way we do things is definitely different. Before it was all internal focus and getting ourselves up to scratch – now it’s still about that internal focus but also about external partnership working. We’ve moved on.
Again, it’s about what I stand for. I’m totally committed to raising aspirations. Many people in this area don’t have any aspiration, and there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t. I have that aspiration for other people and I can see the impact of that every day.
Five years ago only 36% of our students came from within a 5-mile radius. Now it’s 89% because this is now a college they want to go to. And it’s making a difference: there’s a clear correlation with them getting into continued education or employment.
You’ve got to have a real passion for students, in terms of transforming their lives. You’ve got to believe in giving people second chances: they might come to you with no GCSEs, but you give them the chance to try again.
You have to be great at change, too. In this sector, change happens all the time and you have to just go with it, making sure the learners don’t suffer and staying focused on what you’re really trying to do.
You also need to be open-minded: around here that’s because there are a lot of social issues and you have to be able to look beyond someone’s difficult background. But it’s still true wherever you are, so that you don’t make any assumptions or judgements but just see the individual in their own right.
And you’ve got to be positive. You have to believe in them.
I actually leave every day with a smile. One of the things I’m very clear on is making sure my staff and I reflect on what’s happened and what we’ve done well. Somewhere in that day, we’ve had an impact on someone’s life.
Then I say, “Back here tomorrow”. And that makes me happy.
Give it a go! I had no idea if I would like it, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else. There’s no block to coming into education: whatever your background or education, there’s always a way in. You can go and get a teaching qualification, or move into senior management or leadership And remember, an FE college is a business. We run ourselves. Although we get government funding, we still have to generate income and like any other business, we go after new markets, diversify, and work at keeping quality high.
So if you’ve got a business background, so much the better. The only difference from a normal business is that you don’t have to love your customers but you do have to love your students. You’re dealing with their lives and you’ve got to want to make them better.
Mandeep Gill is Vice Principal of Transforming Learning at John Ruskin College
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