When I first joined your Chad slightly more than a year ago, news surrounding Vision West Nottinghamshire College was mostly doom and gloom.
Marred with financial struggles, redundancy after redundancy and a fear that the college was not, to coin Theresa May, strong and stable; the centre was not in a great place.
As recently as November last year the college was temporarily placed into administrative status, while the controversial resignation of former chief executive Dame Asha Khemka brought damning headlines about the college’s “mismanaged” finances.
But fast forward 10 months and the mood of positivity around Mansfield and Ashfield’s largest education centre is deafening.
Coming off the back of a successful year of GCSE and A-level results, the college is now preparing for another cohort of 16 to 18-year-olds joining its three campuses for the forthcoming academic year.
And at its helm, new principal and chief executive Andrew Cropley is gearing up to turn around the college’s fortunes and begin work “on a new chapter” for the once-troubled site.
Mr Copley, who has worked in similar roles at Sheffield College and struggling centres in Stratford-upon-Avon and Skipton, said he is “attracted” by the “challenge” at West Notts and that he appreciates college staff have had a “tough year”.
But after taking up the role full-time he believes there is “a lot to get excited about” moving forward.
He said: “Clearly the staff have had a tough year, but what really impressed me was that they were optimistic, determined to really make the college great and wanted the college to be well-led.
“They obviously wanted certainty, but over the first couple of months I was here we stopped looking backwards and only looked forwards.
“We wanted to give them the security that we can, that there is a really bright future for the college, for its staff, for its students, and for raising aspirations and achievements.”
The new principal has a history of turning struggling colleges around through his previous roles, and said upon coming to Nottinghamshire he felt the college needed “uplifting”.
He thinks it is important to “paint a picture of a bright future”, outlining cost-cutting steps the college has taken to “protect staff” while keeping a “real focus” on education.
He said: “I’m attracted by a challenge, so coming to a college that needed uplifting and someone who could come in to paint a picture of a bright future, and to give people a sense of purpose, was important for me.
“If you allow people to dwell on problems then they will do that, but I think if you can show them the path and get them to identify with it, you can really succeed.
“We stripped out a whole layer of management, so we’ve now got a whole tier less of management staff at the college.
“And the structure has shrunk, but what we’re really tried hard to protect are the staff directly working with students and keep a real focus on our local education.”
‘THERE’S A REAL SENSE OF OPTIMISM NOW’
In what was a very honest discussion about the future, Mr Cropley expressed a “real sense of optimism” that the college can succeed.
After what had been a very turbulent year, he says he made it his mission to give “personal commitments” to staff and said he is “excited” about what the college can achieve.
He said: “I think there’s a real sense of optimism around the college now.
“I’ve been able to talk to staff and give a few assurances and personal commitments, to give a recognition of some of the thing that have happened.
“But also to say yes, they happened, that we’re aware of them and we’re going to move forward onto a new chapter.
“And I’m really excited about this year and some of the opportunities that will come with it.”
As part of his vision for the future, the new principal wants to forge closer relationships with businesses across Mansfield and Ashfield and to create “the workforce of the future”.
He says the college has got the opportunity to “raise the skill level” across our area and help boost the local economy - pushing forward a vision of being a ‘force’ to drive forward “new ideas”.
He said: “When I’ve spoken with some of our local partners, whether that’s the MPs, the NHS trust or local businesses, everyone wants a successful college.
“They all want to play a part in that. Myself, and the senior team and our teaching team, can really embrace that and turn it into an exciting and vibrant college that is here for its community.
“Colleges are here to be part of local success, and if you’ve got a strong college it unquestionably benefits businesses and to the wider economic prosperity of the area.
“We can benefit from successful businesses and they can benefit from us. We can raise the skill level and teach things here that businesses don’t even know they need because of contacts we’ve got.
“This is why we use the term ‘a force’ in our vision - it’s not just listening to what businesses tell us they want, but actually getting out there and asking ‘have you thought that you might benefit from this?’
‘THE COLLEGE IS SOLID, SAFE AND SECURE’
Following the financial struggles that have marred the college over the last 12 months, Mr Cropley says the centre is now “in a really strong position”.
With more than 200 staff members made redundant, he said in frank terms that the college “probably didn’t respond as quickly as it should” when faced with the financial pressures.
But, moving forward, he believes job losses are “behind us” and says the college is “solid, safe and secure”.
He said: “Under the financial strain the college probably didn’t respond as quickly as it should to change its business model, which is why we’ve had to do this very dramatically over the last year.
“But I think we are now in a really strong position. Our finances are in a place where we are safe - but we’re not flushed with money.
“The potential of this college going under is now behind us. We’ve got a long-term agreement with our bank and support from our funding agency, so the college is solid, safe and secure.”
“We’ve had a good week this week and our student numbers are looking strong, so with as much confidence as anyone else sat in my position could have, I don’t see there being any more redundancies to a significant extent.”
Mr Cropley added that he has made it a “personal challenge” to rebuild “lost confidence” that staff have in leadership at the college following the job losses.
He said: “In the short term the challenge for me is continuing to build the confidence of our staff.
“We’ve lost a number of people and people have lost some confidence in their leadership.
“So it’s a personal challenge for me to prove to them that we will lead this college well, and getting them to hold their chins up high and be proud of what we do - and we do some fantastic things.
“Feeling secure is important, but we need to now get back to being absolutely focused on doing the best job for our students.
“We have developed the new vision and done a lot of work to bring our values to life, and really making sure our staff are confidently engaged in the future and challenging ourselves to be the best college we can be.”