Mark Lane meets Gateshead College chief executive and principal Judith Doyle, and uncovers her passion for regional business and representing the North East education sector in the corridors of power

“Getting the skills and training right is the key to unlocking economic prosperity in our region and all the things that come with that,” Gateshead College’s leader Judith Doyle, tells Contact. Put like that, it’s fairly obvious really. Economic growth, particularly in high value areas, fundamentally depends on smart people doing smart things, and high quality, tailored training which is working to a clear overriding strategy is key to that.

With this in mind, it’s reassuring we have somebody like Judith on our side in the North East – both fighting our corner as a region and ensuring its voice is heard in the corridors of power in London. She also brings a welcome dose of common sense and pragmatism to the discussions around training and development currently taking place in the region’s economic development circles.

Judith is chief executive and principal at Gateshead College, although it is the former title which she emphasises, for the college is very much a business, operating in a tough, ever- evolving economic landscape. It is the college’s role as a business in the regional community and links it has forged with other like-minded organisations – including the North East England Chamber of Commerce – which we discuss during an enlightening interview at the college’s Baltic Campus.

“We couldn’t do our job without being intrinsically linked with business,” Judith says. “With the North East England Chamber, for instance, we have a history of good relationships which provides us with that breadth of influence in this region and beyond.

She adds: “We support them in a range of areas and working together with shared values is key to it all. We wouldn’t be working with them if they were just ‘okay’ – that is not good enough for the region. We share their ambition and work ethic and so working with them is a win-win all-around.”

Gateshead College is a high profile training provider, and Judith likes it that way. It is the only Ofsted Outstanding college in Tyne and Wear and the best performing college in the region based on student achievement rates set by the Education
and Skills Funding Agency. The same agency ranks it the second-best performing college in the whole country, which
is remarkable really considering that the North East is not a region known for its high educational achievement. That’s not to criticise the region, more the reflection of a popular perception.

In the context of the above, what is very notable about Judith is that she steadfastly refuses to settle for second best for the North East. She believes the region can be a leader in skills and education and is determined to do everything in her power to ensure that happens.

“There are huge benefits to being such a high profile training provider, and one of these is that we have the ear of government,” she says. “I sit on government committees and, every opportunity I get, I talk about the North East, telling those who don’t know the area what a great place it is to live, work and invest in. If you have a voice, you have to use it properly.”

Judith and her team are wholeheartedly behind the Chamber’s Working North East agenda. “We have to be right in the
middle of that, we are the college that gets you into work,” she continues. “That is fundamentally what we do. The clarity of purpose and value we add as a college is exactly what is being set out here, and the programme is absolutely aligned with our strategic priorities.”

What comes across talking to Judith is the heartfelt nature of what she says. There are no sound-bites, no management speak and certainly no sense of somebody watching every word they say for fear of saying the wrong thing or going ‘off message’.

This is most in evidence when we discuss the issue of school leavers. “It is a fact that young people up to 16 are told that a vocational career is not necessarily a good career and that the best way to be successful is to stay on, do A-Levels and go to university. This is irrespective of what might be right for the student talent-wise or whether there might be a great vocational career more in keeping with their abilities.”

It’s perhaps a sign of the fuzzy logic which seems to have become pervaded discussions around education at a national
level that such a common sense approach might actually be seen by some as controversial. Let’s be honest: we all know people who have wasted three years of their life at university, having gone for no other reason that it seemed like that was the done thing.

Judith is at pains to point out that she is not being critical of schools, rather, that she feels the whole system of career paths needs to be more focused and purposeful.

“Part of our role is getting young people to careers events and thinking about what they want to do with their lives,” she says.

“Young people really need that impartiality at a very early stage in their career, and if we can bring the likes of the Chamber, employers and ourselves together we can all help influence that debate. It is in everybody’s interests to address this issue.

“We have to all be working together to ensure we do what is fundamentally right for young people and give those businesses which are crying out in terms of skills gaps an opportunity to have some kind of pipeline of talent coming through.”

We close our interview by looking briefly at some of the businesses Gateshead College has worked with in the North East, helping to fill the skills gaps Judith mentions.

She stresses that the college’s approach to working with businesses has reversed the old conversation which saw training providers telling employers what they need. “Now we ask them what they need and tailor our approach accordingly,” she says.

Hence working relationships with the likes of Greggs, Ford Engineering, Virgin Money and Brewin Dolphin – to name a small handful – illustrate an innovative, creative approach to training which is far-removed from what we might have seen in days gone by.

With Ford Engineering, for instance, young people who didn’t yet have the grades to secure a good apprenticeship were brought into Gateshead College and made job ready. They eventually provided great recruits for Ford and other engineering companies across the region.

With Greggs the college has been delivering retail apprenticeships across the country and supporting the company to develop their own approach to training and skills.

With Brewin Dolphin, it has helped develop young recruits to enter a sector which is not normally known for taking on apprentices.

“There is a snobbishness that you need to be a graduate to
be a financial analyst but if you get an 18-year-old who is bright you can mould them to what you want them to be and get some great results,” Judith says.

This unconventional approach is working well for Brewin Dolphin, which has successfully taken on a number of young recruits this way.

Some might even call it radical, but given the complexity and scale of the skills and training challenges the region faces, perhaps radical is what we need right now.

Gateshead College