Andy Richardson chats to the man responsible for transforming Telford College
When Graham Guest first arrived in Shropshire to take up the top job at Telford College, he was under no illusions about the scale of the challenges that lay ahead.
Not only was he required to steer the merger of two of the county’s largest education establishments, but he had to untangle their ailing financial fortunes, halt a slide in morale which was beginning to impact on academic achievement . . . and establish a brand new college, with a completely new identity.
That was back in December 2017 – and the transformation in Telford College’s fortunes since then, under his stewardship as principal and chief executive, has been nothing short of remarkable.
Finances are now officially rated as ‘outstanding’, the college’s A-level provision sits proudly in the top 10% of the UK, and education watchdog Ofsted has given it a ‘Good’ rating in its first official inspection.
“When I arrived, we only had £27,000 in the bank, which is unheard of for a college of our size,” recalls Graham, whose 30-plus year career in education has included several top posts across London and the Midlands.
“Now, I’m delighted that we are categorised as financially outstanding, placing us in a very strong position, and opening up lots of exciting new opportunities.”
In fact, the turnaround at Telford College has created UK education history – it’s the first merger of previously underperforming sixth form and further education colleges to ever receive an Ofsted ‘Good’ rating at the first time of asking.
“We were delighted to host education secretary Nadhim Zahawi back in May, who was very complimentary about our achievements,” Graham says.
“The team has done the work – we’ve got a fantastic group of committed people here who are completely focused on improving the quality of the student experience. I’m very proud of how they have developed, and achieved so much, over the past five years.
“But there’s no point turning out students with top-graded qualifications unless they are equipped with skills which are compatible with the needs of the business community.
“So we have spent a great deal of time and effort refining the curriculum here to make sure it remains in line with the ever-changing requirements of the local economy.”
As a former apprentice himself who also ran his own successful private training and consultancy business before moving into education, Graham is a strong advocate of technical and vocational training.
Telford College was formed from the merger of New College Telford and Telford College of Arts & Technology, and one of Graham’s prime objectives has been to build closer and more collaborative links with the local business community.
This has included setting up a series of ‘employer hubs’ where businesses come together with the college’s leadership teams to share best practice, and help to shape the curriculum to ensure it meets their own needs.
“As well as our specialist hubs in areas such as health, engineering and digital technologies, we’ve also opened a new battery training centre to help equip tradespeople with knowledge on renewable power, working in partnership with local company AceOn,” Graham says.
“But we are certainly not resting on our laurels; whatever you achieve, it’s always possible to do better, and the world is changing at such a rapid rate that there’s always something new around the corner.
“We’re pressing ahead with more exciting and innovative additions to our curriculum right now, including preparatory work for new T levels – the new vocational and technical qualifications which are launched soon.”
Work will also shortly begin on the construction of a new digital and maths skills hub, to be run by the college as part of Telford & Wrekin Council’s multi-million-pound ‘Station Quarter’ development in Telford town centre.
“This is a good example of what I’m talking about,” Graham says. “It’s vital that we think outside the box, and work in partnership to harness the latest technology to bring learning to life in less traditional ways, in the most convenient locations. This is the perfect time to be focusing on technology-led careers, because there are a wealth of well-paid job opportunities out there at the moment, with employers crying out for top talent.
“It’s a changing world, and after what we’ve all been through over the past 18 months, many people are re-evaluating their priorities in life. Further education providers have to rise to this challenge, adapting and evolving in what I believe are exciting and fast-moving times.
“Many people who may have previously thought they were in a ‘job for life’ before the pandemic are now looking to change career, either through choice or necessity.
“And that means they could be potentially returning to study for the first time in many years. It’s the role of further education to show them that our doors are open, and give them a warm welcome. We are a very broad and diverse population here at Telford College, which I believe is one of our biggest strengths.”
Against the backdrop of economic uncertainty, Graham says it’s no surprise that Telford College has seen a rise in interest for adult education courses – qualifications such as AAT accountancy, human resources, supporting teaching and learning in schools have been in strong demand.
Distance learning courses, which people can study without the need to physically attend the campus, have also been expanded and are growing in popularity.
The college has also collaborated with a number of partners, including the NHS and Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin Integrated Care System, to set up a healthcare academy at the Haybridge campus in Wellington which includes a replica hospital ward, as well as a home setting to mirror social care situations.
“Keeping abreast of the needs of the local business community is absolutely vital for us here,” Graham says.
“We want to ensure we are delivering the skills that companies need, so the next generation of entrepreneurs and business champions don’t feel the need to leave the county to follow their dreams. We’re always delighted to hear from college alumni who have gone on to achieve amazing success – and are blessed to have quite a list.”
Beauty industry entrepreneur Deborah Mitchell, creator of the Heaven brand which has a raft of celebrity and royal customers, is among them – as is leisure and fitness pioneer Mo Chaudry, star of TV’s ‘Secret Millionaire’ show.
Jordan Barratt, part of the team of scientists which helped develop the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, is another former Telford College student, alongside Paralympian Mickey Bushell . . . the only one with his very own gold postbox in the town!
Latest statistics show that Telford College is now contributing more than £226 million a year to the local economy.
And for every £1 of Government funding, the college’s A-level, apprenticeship and higher education courses generate a return of more than £25 to the local economy.
So, looking back over his five-year tenure, what does Graham Guest consider to have been his biggest challenge?
“Without doubt, the pandemic. We had to react incredibly swiftly to ensure we could support not just our students, but also our staff through what was such a difficult period for everybody.
“No-one knew what the future had in store, but we had to adapt timetables and create online platforms which would enable us to deliver sessions at home, and then build what we call a ‘blended learning’ model as lockdown restrictions began to ease, with a mix of on and off-site tutorials.
“Throughout all this, we had to make sure that all of our students continued to receive their education, and that no-one was left behind – without any idea of how long the situation was going to last. The staff were simply brilliant in responding to what was an incredibly difficult situation, and I can’t thank them enough.”
So that’s the challenging side of the job. What about Graham’s proudest achievements since his arrival?
“I’d say improving morale. People are now walking around with their heads held high – and quite rightly so.
“When people are happy at work it reflects on the quality of the student experience, and the atmosphere around campus. Happy people are always the most productive people.
“It goes without saying that achieving a Good rating from Ofsted is a tremendous endorsement of the progress made at Telford College over the past five years, but I believe the benefits are much wider than our college boundaries. A healthy, prosperous and successful college is also good news for students, and good news for the people and economy of Telford too.”
Graham adds: “The rising cost of living, following the issues we’ve all faced during the Covid pandemic, is presenting big challenges for many households.
“For some, it’s persuading them to completely re-evaluate their career choices in a way they would never have previously considered.
“My message to anyone who finds themselves in this position is that it’s never too late to learn a new skill – you are not alone, and you don’t need to leave the county to pursue the next chapter of your career dreams.”