Giving Gateshead College the edge 

September 8, 2016

When Judith Doyle was appointed principal of Gateshead College in 2013, she had a clear vision and took no time in detailing what this was and what she expected from herself and her 500-plus strong team.

She explains: “I gathered the full team of staff, and I set out our aim to make Gateshead College students the most highly prized in the jobs market and to give each and every one of them the ‘employment edge’.

“I asked everyone to think about the impact this would make on people’s lives – knowing that a good career also leads to happy people, prosperous families and a stronger business community.

“But I didn’t pull any punches about how difficult this would be,” Judith continues.

I told the staff they would have to work harder and smarter. If we didn’t, the college would struggle. If we did, I said, wonderful things would happen.

While, perhaps inevitably, a minority of staff members did choose to leave, the majority embraced Judith’s vision and have worked with their dynamic leader to achieve remarkable results.

Gateshead College has since been awarded an Outstanding Ofsted rating, two grades higher than when Judith was first appointed as principal. The college is also ranked number one in the North East and sixth in the UK, based on the success of its students.

Achieving such feats, Judith says, has required a hard business focus and brave decision making.

In her first six months at the helm, Judith worked on a three-year strategic plan. Part of this included changing the college’s structure which, she says, had become too dispersed and inefficient.

Alongside this, changes to college governance were introduced to ensure a balanced focus and reporting across all of the college’s operations, enabling swift decision making. The governance arrangements were divided into quadrants, each with its own sub-committee, alongside the main board.

Quadrants for Teaching and Learning – incorporating the full student experience, and Corporate Services, which included the college’s finance and infrastructure, were already well established but this new approach allowed for even greater focus and rigour. New quadrants for Business Development and People ensured an emphasis on and leadership at the highest level in what were recognised as crucial areas for the business.

Judith and the marketing team continue to work hard to create a strong brand which clearly positions Gateshead College within the region with new and existing students as well as other key stakeholders.

Judith recognises the importance of her own role as the figurehead of the college, and is currently voicing a radio campaign.

The principal has made a conscious effort to be more visible in the college (she hosts monthly staff lunches and personally meets all new staff at their inductions) as well as in the local business community, sitting on various boards and committees including for NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI), North of England Chamber of Commerce and the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI).

“One of my roles over the past three years has been to get the college to be more outward looking and responsive to the needs of our local community,” says Judith.

So I’ve been everywhere, talking to everyone and developing strong relationships with business leaders in our region, finding out what we can do to help them be more successful.

Developing the college’s People Strategy was a key priority for Judith, who recognised that an engaged workforce could add up to 18 per cent to a business’s bottom line.

The college has subsequently adopted a number of people-focused initiatives, building on work that had gone before. This includes improving employee communications and engagement, greater investment in management development, succession planning, and reward and recognition initiatives, including the Edge Awards. An increasing focus on performance management, using tools including Aspire, an interactive online performance management system, is helping drive a high-performance culture where people have clear targets and development goals and where achievements are recognised.

“We set about changing the culture of the college so that everyone knows what their role is and how this sits within the college’s wider goals,” says Judith.

The work seems to have paid off as the college recently secured the Investors in People Gold Award for the second time.

The renowned accreditation recognises people management in companies and organisations, with just 13 per cent of those who apply achieving gold.

“We’ve never done as well as we have this time around,” says Judith. “[The Investors in People award] is a statement about what we stand for, that we want to be a great employer and that we value our people.

“Of course, having that gold stamp also helps to attract people, and we want to recruit the very best people for our college,” she adds.

Adopting such a strong business focus since becoming principal, it is perhaps surprising that Judith is not from a corporate background. Instead she taught English and Communication for 11 years at Gateshead College (then Gateshead Technical College) before moving into management and senior management roles focused on quality improvement.

“I’m a great example of an investment in a person,” says Judith, “as, apart from some consultancy work, which has taken me across the country and abroad, my career has virtually all been in and around Gateshead College.”

Judith’s business focus, she says, is welcomed by her board, which includes business leaders such as chairman Robin Mackie, Emily Cox, director of public affairs at Virgin Money, and Ian Renwick, CEO at Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust.

“The board and I recognise that the college is a business – a complex one – which just happens to be in education, and we must remain very target driven,” says Judith.

The college, of course, also plays a crucial role in many local businesses and is the chosen training partner for the likes of intu, Go North East, Nissan and other key employers in the region.

Judith is particularly proud of the flexibility and agility Gateshead College offers when developing training packages.

“This comes from our structure and our culture,” she explains. “We’re businesslike and listen to what our customers want and are prepared to take a different approach if that’s what is needed; our team know this is how we must operate.”

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Gateshead College offers a range of training, from apprenticeships and BTECs to higher education qualifications, but also positions itself as the go-to organisation for those companies looking for expert advice on skills, developing their workforce development strategies and any relevant legislation such as the Apprenticeship Levy, which is set to come into force in April 2017.

Judith’s considerable accomplishments were recognised on the highest stage in April this year, when she was named the TES Awards FE Leader of the Year.

One of six shortlisted FE leaders from 379 colleges across the UK, Judith triumphed due to the judges recognising not only her role as an inspiration to those within the college and beyond, but also her achievements in exceeding the key financial targets for the college.

“It is a moment I’ll never forget,” Judith reflects about the moment her name was announced at the awards ceremony at Grosvenor House in London.

I felt very proud and honoured. This has been my whole career and to be recognised nationally was overwhelming. It was also great for my daughter and my family who support me every step of the way.

“It’s a personal choice to do what I do and to spend the time that it takes. But you can’t approach a job like this in half measures and this award acknowledges the blood, sweat and tears.

“Of course, it was about the team as well and it was great for Gateshead to be singled out as the best of the best.”

Despite her own and the college’s success, Judith is keen that Gateshead College continues to improve and is currently working on a new strategic plan.

“Our focus continues to be on giving our students the employment edge but we are also looking at increasing learning and development opportunities for our staff and coaching models to develop an even higher performance culture,” Judith explains.

“We can do this now because of where we are and what we have achieved; I feel we have the business right. We have a maturity so we can focus on empowering people and getting them to be more innovative.”

She concludes: “As a college, we are highly self-reflective. We can always do better. We want to get the best from people and not settle for second best, and then our students and the businesses we work with will always be the ones to benefit.”
Gateshead College 

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