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One of the region’s largest further education colleges is currently experiencing a dynamic phase of growth and transformation. Northumberland College, a specialist land-based and vocational and technical college, has secured its long-term future and created significant opportunities for its students and the local economy as a result of its merger with Sunderland College.

Northumberland College, with campuses in Ashington, Berwick, Blyth and Kirkley Hall Ponteland, merged with Sunderland College in March 2019 to create Education Partnership North East, one of the largest college groups nationally. The group, which also includes Hartlepool Sixth Form, has a combined student community of around 20,500 and a workforce of over 1,100 curriculum and specialist support staff.

Following the merger, a new senior leadership team was created to build on the college’s culture and implement a new strategic vision at Northumberland College. Nigel Harrett, who was previously Deputy Principal and Deputy Chief Executive at Sunderland College, was recruited and appointed Principal of Northumberland College in April 2019. He had the experience and insight to lead the college into an ambitious phase following its merger and ensure its future success. He says:

“Since merger, our fantastic staff have worked hard to build on existing strengths and make significant improvements in other areas.  Our shared vision is driving our pursuit of excellence and ensuring we deliver high quality education that engages and motivates students to learn and achieve their full potential. Our strategic vision is supported by four professional values and behaviours – authentic, respectful, innovative, ambitious – which underpin all our activities. Collectively we are raising aspirations, which has led to a positive impact on staff and students, supporting our transformational growth and development.

“Prior to the suspension of face-to-face teaching due to the pandemic, attendance and punctuality figures at the college showed a 10% improvement on the previous year. I am extremely proud of our students. As one example, in our last set of formal results in 2019, students in health, public services and care are now achieving above national comparative benchmarks .

“At our Kirkley Hall campus, over time there has been a significant positive shift in quality and student achievement. In 2018/19 only 65% of provision at Kirkley achieved or exceeded national comparative benchmark rates. In 2019/20, 82% of provision significantly exceeded national benchmarks for student achievement. This is brilliant! In addition, our recent  destination data revealed that 94.7% of Northumberland College students aged 16-18 progressed to a positive destination.”

Further supporting the culture of high expectations, a robust induction process was introduced for the first-time last year, which included welcome talks to students in order to establish standards and expectations and create a better experience early on. A Personal Tutor was also allocated to every student at the start of term, to support and guide them throughout their time at college. In addition, student timetables and key dates were shared with parents to encourage engagement and support from home. A ‘student first’ approach has created a positive experience for students, better communication channels and ultimately progression to a positive destination.

Across the college, there has been a significant increase in new processes to ensure that the student voice is heard and valued. Whilst continuous improvement is a key focus, student feedback is now gathered via forums, course representatives and by engaging students as participants in course design. The Student President is a new role that was introduced in September 2019. Students vote for a president to represent and seek the views of students and be a leadership figure for the student community.

Since the merger, clear and purposeful internal communication channels have been established with frequent communication via staff briefings, online updates and Principal surgeries. A weekly ‘5 minute read’ has also been introduced, which is distributed via email to all staff every Friday. The informative newsletter provides updates and recognises individual staff achievements. It has significantly improved internal communication as staff continue to work with passion, dedication and commitment towards an ambitious and clear vision.

The college has implemented a robust new curriculum planning process informed by employers, regional and local priorities, and has worked hard to ensure viable, quality focused courses.  A new quality, teaching and learning team is coaching standards in teaching, learning and assessment.   The provision at Ashington, Berwick and Blyth campuses has been developed in line with strategic priority areas such as digital, engineering and health, with clear links to industry standards that support career pathway aspirations. A new Level 2 Engineering in Offshore Energy qualification is being developed for September 2020 with Port Training Services, the training division of the Port of Blyth, to support in meeting the skills needs of the local economy.

Joanne McManus, one of two Associate Principals at the college, was appointed Associate Principal for Ashington, Berwick and Blyth in September 2019 to drive technical education. She said:

“We have a purpose-built STEM centre which accommodates health, science, electrical and electronic engineering, along with fully-equipped workshops, an airplane fuselage, training and commercial salons and commercial kitchens and restaurant. New facilities in 2020-2021 will further support an innovative and career-focused curriculum.”

The strength of being part of a large college group has enabled much needed investment in facilities and resources at Northumberland College, to enhance learning environments and strengthen the college’s specialisms. A multi-million-pound investment programme announced last November, was part of an ambitious new strategic plan to ensure that Northumberland College is positioned as one of the region’s leading education and training providers.

The extensive re-development programme includes the creation of an advanced, state-of-the-art digital academy and a new health simulation ward at Ashington. The student experience will also be enhanced with the development of a dynamic welfare hub and access to a wide range of specialist support staff and services for students. The investments will provide staff and students with outstanding new facilities and support the development of higher-level technical skills. Since the merger there has already been extensive refurbishment of existing buildings and works to improve health and safety standards.

The college’s rural campus in Kirkley Hall, near Ponteland, is a specialist centre for animal, land-based and outdoor education and training. The 400-acre site is also is home to a grade II listed building and walled gardens, vast woodland, an outdoor activity centre, a working farm and a student training zoo with 200 species of animals.

New investments at Kirkley Hall, set in the picturesque Northumberland countryside, include the construction of a bespoke equine centre, which is already underway, and a new education hub to accommodate the delivery of equine management skills. The improvements will enable the college to become a centre of excellence for equine education. Animal management students will benefit from a renovation project at the on-site training zoo, which will position it as one of the best facilities of its kind in the country. Other investments include a new a veterinary nursing academy, animal science labs and substantially improved student residential accommodation.

A new build at Kirkley Hall is currently under construction, which from November will house a range of highly-specialist and inspiring resources for students with special educational needs and disability (SEND).  It will include a modern and innovative space to allow students to develop their independence, enterprise skills, raise their aspirations and be fully included within all aspects of college life. The new facilities will support students to achieve their potential in a stimulating learning environment, with a reshaped curriculum that is personalised to their individual needs.

Lee Lister was appointed Associate Principal for Land-based in September 2019. Having worked in the further education sector for over 20 years, he brought with him a wealth of experience in curriculum and strategic management. He explains:

“Our adult and 16-18 study programme offer has been completely redesigned for 2020/21 with the sole purpose of ensuring students have the skills for their next steps and can progress to higher level study or employment. Employers have been fully involved in the design of our courses, which will ensure the softer skills required for success in industry are embedded, as well as the core skills and competencies.

“To complement their main study programme, students will study short courses designed to build skill, resilience and employability so we can produce students with unique experiences and attributes to give them a competitive edge.”

From September, the offer for adult learners at Kirkley Hall will include professional courses in dog grooming, veterinary nursing, floristry and horticulture, as well as range of recreational courses to support lifelong learning. A new rural skills offer will support adults working in land-based occupations with professional development and compliance to industry standards.

This academic year, students and staff have taken part in prestigious regional and national competitions to support their skills development, confidence and resilience. Individual achievements included Level 3 Agriculture students participating in the Great Farm Challenge for the first time and horticulture apprentice Jed Hallet winning the college heat of the Young Horticulturalist of the Year.

Students gaining a positive and life-changing experience and progressing to achieve their future ambitions is key to the college’s success.

Former Public and Uniformed Services students, Georgia Howden, made a 60-mile journey every day from her home in Hexham to the college’s Kirkley Hall Campus. She has now progressed to the British Army. She said:

“There was a positive atmosphere around campus. The tutors helped with my confidence and self-belief and made learning enjoyable. I always wanted to join the Army as a future career and the course at Northumberland College helped me to develop my confidence, teamwork, problem solving and leadership skills. I have now been accepted into the British Army Royal Logistics Corps and I’m really looking forward to putting everything I have learned into practice and develop my future career.”

The new developments and investments since its merger have not only supported the college’s transformational growth and development, they have also significantly enhanced the student experience and learning opportunities.

The college will continue to evolve and realise their ambitious new vision of excellence whilst making a direct contribution to greater economic prosperity in the region and transforming skills education and training for young people and adults across Northumberland.

Apply now or explore the extensive range of courses for school leavers and adults at North

Why Education Partnership North East (EPNE)?

Highly commended - Employer of the Year, Sunderland Echo Portfolio Awards 2019

Engagement with Employers - Association of Colleges (AoC) Beacon Award 2017

(Sunderland College On-programme Survey 2017)

Selected by DfE for 2021 T Level pilot to deliver the new high-quality technical qualifications.

98% overall employer satisfaction - Employer Survey 2018/19