Judy Terry: West Suffolk is showing the way on apprenticeships

13 Jul

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Journalists are cynics, but every once in a while you meet someone who restores your faith in strong, inspirational, leadership; someone exuding confidence and commitment, as well as charm and humour, who gets results.

Dr. Nikos Savvas, a Particle Physicist, and Chief Executive of West Suffolk College (WSC) in Bury St Edmunds, and Suffolk Academies Trust that includes One sixth form college in Ipswich and Abbeygate sixth form college in Bury St Edmunds is just such a person.

Over the last seven years, he has developed a series of advanced full and part time training courses, tailored to the needs of local businesses, to make West Suffolk College the largest apprenticeship provider in the region with over 2,000 apprenticeship students.

Winning over 50 awards, and holding 369 major events to engage with prospective students and employers, promoting opportunities to develop specialist skills as an alternative to – or a route to – a degree, the College is earning a prized reputation for excellence at a time when Technical Colleges are finally regaining their rightful place in the education system.

He admits to “being inspired by a disadvantaged young woman who dropped out of education at 14, and then went on to College. It made me want to teach, making a difference to young lives, giving them aspiration and ambition.”

His enthusiasm is infectious, as evidenced by his loyal and talented 1000-strong team supporting delivery, imparting their knowledge and expertise, in a happy and proactive learning environment.

In the last two years alone, Dr. Savvas has attracted millions to invest in new and improved facilities. He has forged strong relationships to support science, technology and engineering skills development across the East, working closely with Cambridge University, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the National Skills Academy for Nuclear on innovative projects as well as achieving ‘Computer Hub’ status in order to upskill teachers across the region.

A joint needs analysis with the business community has built working relationships with BT, Marshalls Aerospace and EDF (for the existing work at Sizewell B and the planned Sizewell C nuclear project) as well as The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Elstree film studios, using students’ film and creative media expertise on the James Bond franchise and Star Wars.

Across the four campuses the College delivers training in all the Humanities, Health and the Arts, together with Animal and Equine Management, Veterinary Nursing, Beauty Therapy, Hairdressing and Fashion, Building and Construction, Law, Motor Vehicle skills, Performing Arts, Music and Photography, and Graphic Design. Their Hospitality students are trained to a Michelin standard not only in their inhouse ‘AA Highly Commended’ restaurant but in industry

Last year the College opened a new 90,000 sq. ft STEM Innovation Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation which, partly funded by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (NALEP), helps train students design computer games, explore robotic innovations, and scope for new prosthetics enabling rehabilitation for amputees. The College hopes to create a small-business hub for new enterprises alongside this facility, taking mentoring to a new level, sharing experiences as they grow.

Part of the Eastern Colleges Group, WSC also provides “outstanding vocational and academic” post-16 education from Colchester to Norwich, Ipswich to Cambridge for over 12,000 students. The College has also sponsored the creation of a new 6th form college – Abbeygate Sixth Form College, which is now under construction on the Bury St. Edmunds site, for an autumn 2020 opening. Dr. Savvas explains “for me, education and removing the barriers preventing anyone from achieving their true potential is essential if we are to lead fulfilling lives, having jobs with real purpose and prospects.”

Retraining older workers wishing to renew their careers, is another priority. “There is a lot of hidden talent, and we must draw that out.” WSC is committed to giving students support, including financial, for course materials, as well as welfare support for activities inside and outside the College. This approach enhances mutual respect, with students feeling valued, rather than ‘cash cows’, which is the case in some universities, where lecturers’ strikes leave students without vital tutorials, feeling especially vulnerable as they approach their final year exams.

“Our priorities are to support the character strengths evident in every successful individual: qualifications are, of course, high on the agenda, but resilience, curiosity, confidence, ambition and respect are equally important. Businesses want optimistic, self-disciplined recruits with good communication, who are creative, with a ‘get up and go’ mentality, ready and willing to adapt to change.”

Embedding good timekeeping is essential.

Raising awareness of all the opportunities means holding open days at the college, with tours and introductions to tutors and existing students, as well as going into primaries, and secondary schools, to enthuse youngsters – and their teachers – from an early age, with a particular focus on science, engineering, computer technology. Praised by Ofsted, this approach is supported by the County and District Councils and business community.

The annual Festival of Learning is a fixture for the first Friday in July, attracting 1,500 teachers, educational experts and business leaders.

Spending a few hours walking round the site, visiting the various training hubs to meet students and lecturers, and chatting with Dr. Savvas (who stopped every few yards, to pick up litter dropped by the students) was a lesson in how such passion can be transformative. Having three young daughters, he is conscious of the need for equal opportunities for everyone, challenging all forms of discrimination, whether based on sexuality or disability:

“Students are at the heart of what we do, they are drawn to us for our inclusivity and outstanding education, focused on each individual to get the very best out of them. They never cease to amaze me with their determination and willingness to strive for, and exceed, what we expect of them.

“We believe that our responsive curriculum and collaborative approach with employers and local communities is a catalyst for prosperity across the wider region, as our reputation for excellence spreads nationally, and even internationally.” He has certainly spread the word widely overseas, being invited to foreign institutes, and Apple in the United States.

Meanwhile, West Suffolk Council’s ambitious strategy to develop a leisure and business complex, alongside the WSC site, is already attracting investment, with some big names planning further expansion, expressing significant interest in developing close partnerships with the College.

John Griffiths, the Council Leader, says:

“We are proud of how West Suffolk College is contributing to the local economy, with its diverse range of career training opportunities, adding to the vibrancy of our region. We want to attract and retain talent, giving everyone the right career choices. Technology, in particular, moves at such a pace, it’s essential to keep up with the demand for appropriately qualified recruits across all industries, and the College does just that.”

It also undoubtedly helps with securing diverse sources of income from the private and public sectors to ensure its financial stability and sustainability into the long term.