For years a real-time but non-profit-making media production company within a college has turned out dozens of remarkably successful students in one of the toughest sectors in the industry. Yet being set up to teach media skills to students who are all the time working with actual clients is a tricky proposition that few colleges can handle. What’s its secret?
Hayley McCarthy, who gained a level 4 MLC foundation diploma in 2016 and now freelances in motion graphics; and Lewis Everett, who achieved his level 4 this year
Hayley: Lorraine is just so passionate. She went above and beyond for all of us. None of my year group of around 15 had really done anything in the media before but, within the first month of the course, we’d all made a TV show and then broadcasted it on Freeview! She got me my first job in the media and even now I can send her a text and she’ll be there for me. I was very shy and nervous and did not put myself forward for things perhaps I should have done, yet she was your biggest fan/supporter and pushed you to do things you didn’t think you could. She instilled such professionalism in all of us - even now many of the methods and techniques I use when working with clients I have got from Lorraine. She showed you who you could be and had so much faith in you. It was okay to try and to make mistakes because you learned from them. And yet she was also so humble and didn’t want any credit for what she did.
Lewis: I didn’t care about my education much when I first joined the course but Lorraine put things into perspective. She really cares about our work - during the Covid-19 lockdown, she’s emailed and called us countless times. It makes you want to do well not just for yourself but for her. She's treated us like work colleagues and, though we are being taught, she’s always encouraged us to produce ideas and discuss them between ourselves. She’s also supported me with personal problems - I was not in a good place mentally as difficulties at home prevented me from taking A-levels, which all the other students had gained; I’d dropped out of two colleges. But Norwich took a chance with me, based on my GCSE results, and Lorraine sparked my belief I could do something better.
“I’ve had about 50 lives!” exclaims Lorraine Sutherland, when describing her packed media career path from drama school degree to City College Norwich. Production roles in radio and theatre, interspersed with academic research projects at home and in India, Poland and Italy, led to an MA and more research at Exeter University where she was then invited to teach. Family ties caused a move to Norwich where she took up her current FE role in 2012.
Just two days before the first course started, she was given an industry-based brief with nothing on it. “I had to go on the fly, find out what local businesses and students wanted, and build from there. The college gave me a lot of autonomy to meet industry demands and students’ wishes. It’s worked out quite well!”
Lorraine runs her course (equivalent to a foundation diploma) as a production company, which as far as she knows is unique in the UK. “We don’t follow traditional education pathways. Students, all aged 18+, attend our one-year level 3-4 course. Within the first two weeks, students are expected to found a company, produce a logo, do a search for competitors, create a website and trade under their company name for the rest of the year.
‘We are client-based with real deadlines and budgets’
“All the projects we do are client-based with real deadlines and budgets. We are still in the industry but just have different production values and work at a different scale as the students are still learning.
“I guide them through work we do with a local production company, as well as in larger projects, and help them create different types of live media events and moving image documentaries to give them real-life production experience.”
Most students either go on to university; local (sometimes leading) production companies; freelance; or start their own businesses (for whom Lorraine has set up an incubation scheme to help set them up with software and mentors).
Lorraine leads on production management of documentaries and live performance and entertainment events, such as music festivals and Norwich Science Festival for whom students produced an online TV show. The course also covers graphics, photography and animation, and meets increasing requests for short film content, particularly from charities.
‘Our partners believe in young people and what we do’
How does the college avoid clients who just want something on the cheap? “I have to query their motivation - it’s a fine line,” says Lorraine. “We work mostly with public bodies such as the police, and the local council, and charities like the Wildlife Trust and food banks, but only after we have spent several months agreeing on expectations and carrying out rigorous risk assessments.
"Our partners want more than just products/transactions; they believe in young people and what we do; they want a relationship with us.”
So what lies behind Lorraine’s approach? “As a teacher I want to help students find their own intrinsic motivation - people can really move mountains when they have an innate desire so I try to stimulate that.” Part of her success is down to her holistic view of the consummate professional. “It even comes down to how you enter a room; you’ll greet someone and expect to be greeted back as a professional courtesy - so I try to embed social skills in my students.”
Success also comes from really caring about her students, finding out who they are and getting to know them. “Once you do that, it’s all you need - just as long as you can bring your fundamental ethics to bear on all your decision-making.”
Every day the students put in dummy invoices
What techniques work best? “We mimic professional production processes as close as we can . . . we don’t have individual teaching sessions as we are in from morning till evening - like in an office. We start with real industrial practices such as holding a production meeting every morning. The students are given set roles that they’ve applied for on a particular brief; this clarifies their specific responsibilities, they know what is expected of them within the team, and it makes them aware of their importance to our collective success.”
“At this time of year, I get them used to how a freelancer would work, so every day they are in, they are expected to put in dummy invoices for time spent on a project. I also try to instill a real-life skills management structure to get students to respond to each other and develop peer review skills.”
Lorraine assigns one student as project manager for a period and they will set a daily focus - such as creativity - and at the end of that day students rag-rate (give each other, including the product manager, a red, amber or green rating). The project manager can drop a fellow student to an amber, say, if something has not gone well, and they will then work peer to peer to plan how to improve that persons’ performance the next day. It’s a two-way process focused on mutual respect.
Finger puppets unlock the mystery of self-assessment
How does she lift the cohort on a ‘bad day’? “Eyes were glazing over during one session on taxation so the next day I asked them how they would like me to present it in a more exciting way. Somebody suggested finger puppets I’d used on a shoot earlier in the year and afterward they actually understood self-assessment! We had a bit of a laugh and they got it - which was the main thing.
“At other times we’ve used some leftover funding for weekly half-hour kickboxing sessions as a break from our computers during a stressful project we’d been working on eight hours a day. Or we’ve taken someone’s 'passion project’ idea such as creating their own YouTube channel on a certain subject. We all work on that for a short while, providing light relief and boosting the student’s confidence.”
Biggest challenge? “Persuading students not to limit how they see themselves. We regularly get in outside speakers to talk about different career paths, including - during lockdown - the Sun’s ex-defense editor and senior BBC TV producers.”
Lorraine describes her role as fulfilling, exciting and thrilling. To fully succeed in any similar creative environment, she says you have to want to get involved with your students. “Find out who they really are because you are dealing with individuals - not just a group.”