The Long Game: Chris Toon

June 4, 2019

Chris Toon is deputy principal at Gateshead College, the number one college in the country for post-16 education and training based on student achievement rates. A qualified teacher and experienced lecturer, Chris has spent almost two decades working in the education sector. During his five years with Gateshead College he’s played a key role supporting principal and chief executive Judith Doyle in cementing the organisation’s reputation as a business that delivers outstanding outcomes for its students and the employers it works with


I was inspired to work in education because I wanted to teach maths, just like my former teacher, Mr Joslin. After becoming an advanced skills teacher in 2004 I fell into the business of professional development and coaching, learning from some inspirational leaders who’ve helped me to be the best leader I can be and I’ve carried those skills with me into my current role at Gateshead College, where I’m still learning and developing.

When I first started out in education it wasn’t necessarily easier than it is now, but there was more money around and the pace was slower. There was also a massive preference for academic rather than technical qualifications, a perception that, thankfully, is starting to change. Other pathways – vocational qualifications, apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships and the like – have started to flourish whereas 20 years ago they were often seen, wrongly, as the poor relation. But we still need to do much more to ensure people no longer see A Levels and university degrees as the only passport to a worthwhile career.


It’s still a challenging environment with reduced budgets and colleges under greater pressure to deliver high-quality training for students and businesses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though; it’s forced training providers to be more resilient and flexible – and those that aren’t might not survive. The further education (FE) sector is an overcrowded marketplace now; there’s too many providers delivering the same type of training. The ones that will thrive will be those that can help people gain skills that employers want, credible organisations that can inspire, lead, influence and deliver the highest quality education. That’s the sort of organisation I’m proud to say I work for, a college that is focused on the individual and which makes a huge difference to the lives of so many people.

Over the years, I’ve seen many positive changes. Employers have complete control over apprenticeship standards now, which is how it should be. Off-the-shelf training is becoming a thing of the past. The digital revolution is helping companies transform their business and exploit new markets. We were the first college in the country to run a course on virtual reality and augmented reality. These immersive technologies do more than create great games, they can be used by businesses to help retailers promote their products or builders to risk-assess construction projects.


The future’s bright. Yes, there’s some uncertainty due to Brexit but the UK holds some fantastic opportunities for skilled people, those who can adapt to a changing environment and get to grips with new technologies. Colleges will continue to be the go-to provider of technical and vocational education. There’ll be more connections between countries, more working across borders and the workforce will become more agile. While some jobs will be lost due to automation, others will emerge. Just look at how social media has created employment opportunities, there was no such thing as a social media influencer a few years ago, but this role is becoming increasingly common now.

I’ll continue to help students achieve their potential. I want them to have the skills and confidence to start a business or help a local employer to grow and develop. Listening to employers and responding to their changing skills needs will continue to be crucial. If I can do all of this, I’ll know I’m doing a decent job.

Gateshead College

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In the limelight: June 2019