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Star Interview: 'We're heading in the right direction' - The Sheffield College's principal on her boss's resignation, showing students the world of work and why Government funding pledge is not enough

Angela Foulkes. Picture: Marisa Cashill
Angela Foulkes. Picture: Marisa Cashill
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If anyone wants an instant snapshot of the changing face of Sheffield they should ask to see the panoramic view from Angela Foulkes’ office window.

The principal of The Sheffield College can see shiny offices of high-tech firms popping up and the £65 million New Era Square development of flats and shops taking shape on the horizon. Even the college’s City campus building - where Angela is based - points the way to the future, its rooftop wind turbines whirring merrily on a day of strong winds, generating eco-friendly power.

Angela Foulkes. Picture: Marisa Cashill

Angela Foulkes. Picture: Marisa Cashill

Angela arrived three months ago at the start of the academic year, succeeding Heather Smith, and has already added the titles of acting chief executive and accounting officer to her role following the abrupt departure of boss Paul Corcoran, who resigned two weeks ago just days after taking a leave of absence for personal reasons. Angela claims Paul’s departure hasn’t affected the day-to-day running of the college, and says her workload has ‘not really’ increased.

But Sheffield College is a big operation, encompassing four campuses - City, Hillsborough, Olive Grove and Peaks, in Waterthorpe - and it’s certainly the most demanding job of her career in further education so far. Around 16,000 young people and adults are enrolled on full-time and part-time academic, vocational and professional courses - from A-levels and access courses to apprenticeships and honours degrees.

“They are the future of our city,” insists Angela.

The college’s last Ofsted inspection was in January 2016, so another is expected in the coming year. The most recent report made for uneasy reading, and called for improvements in leadership and teaching, and identified attendance as a concern. A place Sheffield’s size would normally get four days’ notice of an impending visit.

“We’re well prepared for it,” she says. “You want them to see what you do for real.”

Angela’s top priority in Sheffield is to strengthen the curriculum by following her favoured mantra, ‘careers, not courses’.

“When you leave year 11 or year 13 and join a college, it often feels like you’re coming to the end of something. It’s not the end, it’s the start. The students we have right now should be preparing for either more study or a career. We have to make sure what we offer is fit for purpose with that in mind. If you want to stay local, which a proportion of the students here do, then we have to make sure we’re preparing people for what’s on offer locally. I think we’re good at that, and getting a lot better. We’re doing an awful lot of work in construction and digital, because that’s where there’s a lot of opportunity.”

Taking a close look at how courses are delivered, when today’s students are so accustomed to using digital technology in every part of their lives, is crucial too.

“When I look at my own children, and the kinds of things they expect from learning, it’s not what I experienced. We should be more digital and collaborative. It’s about keeping it modern and fresh.”

Angela grew up in Flixton, a south Manchester suburb. She left school at 16 and went straight into a job in banking but, after three years, decided it wasn’t for her.

“My friends who had stayed on at school started to go to university and I thought ‘I could do that’. In the bank, twice a day I made tea for 25 other people and I thought ‘I can do more than this.’ I was fairly sure I could do something bigger and better, but I didn’t really know what.”

Angela took O-levels in English and French at night school at what is now The Manchester College. Years later she returned there as vice principal for curriculum and support, the job she left to come to Sheffield. After passing her exams she moved to London to study, and worked at the same time.

“My favourite job was in Woolworths, because I was in charge of toys. It was brilliant, except at Christmas which was truly horrid. My children love that story because that’s where me and my partner met. He was in charge of compost.”

Angela volunteered as a teaching assistant at Newham Sixth Form College in East London - a tough environment, she says. “Newham is a fairly challenged area in terms of deprivation and what the students want to do, their aspirations.”

She was among the first to gain a PGCE in further education, and working in the capital gave her some important insights, one of which came from being in a class with a tutor who ‘didn’t appear to be doing a lot of teaching’.

“She was enabling the students to move on to something else. Because they’d clearly left school with very little. She was building their confidence and working with a group of probably about 15, mostly boys, to teach them English and maths. It was a really lovely atmosphere. I learned you don’t have to do a massive amount to get somebody to aspire to something better.”

She focused on English and maths for several years until she joined Barnsley College as its vice principal with a ‘bigger remit’. “It’s been incremental change. And mostly things I’ve wanted to do rather than career hops. I’ve been fairly choosy and it’s got to be something that’s a challenge.”

Angela, 48, lives in Ecclesall with her son and daughter, both at secondary school, and partner Phil, who works at Sheffield Hallam University. They moved here from North London for the Barnsley job nine years ago.

“I wanted to live in a city and would have chosen Leeds or Sheffield, but I chose Sheffield. It’s green. I love it. It’s sporty and cultural. I’ve been to the theatre more times in the last five years than I’ve probably done in my whole life.”

She agrees that, with prominent firms such as supercar producer McLaren opening facilities in the region, Sheffield College students have to be prepared to compete for the area’s best jobs.

“Often when we talk to employers they’re looking for the rounded person - someone with confidence who’s articulate, is going to turn up on time and behave in the workplace, as well as having the ability and technical knowledge to do whatever job it is. Part of our job is to do that bit, to get the students to engage with being work ready. Some of them are great at that - they completely understand what it is to be ‘at work’. We’re a major employer. Sometimes we have to remind students that we don’t just employ teachers.”

The fact the college’s students aren’t all aged 16-18 can be overlooked, she adds.

“I’m not sure we celebrate the success of adult learners as much as we could. Most of the classes here are mixed. There’s a richness in that. Being in a class with adults is good for young people. You can learn from experience.”

In summer a shake-up was announced across the campuses that put dozens of jobs at risk, mainly senior and support posts, in a drive to invest in frontline teaching. Paul Corcoran, who came to the college in 2015 from DeltaRail, a railway technology company in Derby, promised a new job would be created for every one of the lost roles.

“We’re still recruiting - we recruit regularly, to teaching and support staff posts,” says Angela. “It’s buoyant at the college at the moment. There’s no staff movement, there’s nothing going on. Staff turnover is where we are.”

But is the college happy with lacking a dedicated chief executive for the time being?

“I’m hoping everybody is OK with where we are right now. I’m acting chief executive and principal, I’m absolutely delighted to take the job, and think we’re going to head in the right direction. It’s a great opportunity and a challenge and I’m really looking forward to it.”

‘£20 million is not enough’
The Government promised an extra £20 million for colleges to prepare for new T-level qualifications in last week’s budget - but the sum is still too small, Angela Foulkes says.

The courses will allow 16 to 19-year-olds to study in subjects like hair and beauty or construction from 2020, and are intended to make access to the job market easier.

“Do I think £20 million is enough? No. I genuinely don’t. But I think if the £20 million is part of different conversations for funding post-16, then that’s a conversation that absolutely needs to happen,” Angela says. “At the moment it’s very difficult to deliver on the funding we’ve been experiencing.”

Some of the money should allow a greater investment in work experience, ‘which is a change’, she remarks. “That will be interesting to see how that unfolds. It’s critical the relationships with employers are in place, because they’re fairly sizeable placements.”

But ultimately she thinks the qualifications are ‘a good thing’.

“Academic education is still there, loud and proud, but this raises the profile of technical education which the majority of students in our college are doing.”

Colleges will also get £600 for every extra student who studies maths at level three.