As principal of Hartlepool College of Further Education, Darren Hankey knows all about providing a runway for careers to take off. Now, as chair of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Hartlepool council, he is harnessing those experiences to strengthen the organisation’s work around skills provision amid a landscape of COVID-19 and Brexit where the importance of training and education has arguably never been higher. Here, he tells Steven Hugill about his aims in his new role and why, despite the challenging environment, there remains much to be positive about
Hartlepool College of Further Education

There is something rather fitting about a former RAF training aeroplane guarding the entrance to Hartlepool College of Further Education.

After all, the institution has been helping students’ employment prospects take off for more than 170 years. But the plane – a Jet Provost T5 that was a catalyst for countless pilots’ careers – goes far beyond mere aesthetics.

When it arrived at its current home nearly a decade ago, years of action had left the aircraft in sore need of restoration.

Salvation came in the form of college students, whose endeavours added fresh resplendence to its striking scarlet red, white and blue fuselage.

And therein lies the deeper story.

The plane – which sits atop beams that rise at differing angles to give it a banking pose – is a visual metaphor for the importance of education and the value of practical learning.

It is complemented by two further jets and a helicopter, which, rather than overlooking the car park gates, are housed in a hanger that forms part of the institution’s Skills Academy.

In here, learners hone their abilities on the latter crafts’ mechanical intricacies, with many progressing into apprenticeships that support the
maintenance of operational RAF fleets. For youngsters, such an environment provides crucial real-world experience and gives employers access to a continued conveyor belt of talent.

Moreover for the college, it signifies a manifestation of a wider sector commitment to remain ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering the skills for tomorrow’s industries.

“Aerospace is a key sector for us,” says principal Darren Hankey, “and we have a great relationship with Babcock, for whom we provide apprentices for RAF Linton and RAF Leeming.

“As a college, we are always thinking of ‘what next’ in terms of skills provision, and that was very much part of the reason why we set up the aircraft hangar to offer specialist maintenance courses.

“It is also the very reason why we now operate an area for electric vehicles too.

“The switch to greener transport is only going to continue growing and we quickly identified the need for a specialist focus, given how different it is to train and work on electric vehicle power compared to standard petrol or diesel engines.

Darren continues: “We are always looking at where we need to position ourselves to stay one step ahead.

“It is why we are working with Seymour Civil Engineering to boost skills around groundworks – which are particularly important given the present demand for new roads and pavements that will be integral to the ‘levelling-up’ agenda – and doing a lot of work around telecare too.

“We are also concentrating on the rollout of 5G and providing the specialist skills that will be needed in the region, and across the country, to help deliver that.”

The focus Darren highlights reflects a very modern approach for an institution whose roots trail back more than 170 years to 1849 and the West Hartlepool Literary and Mechanics Institution.

Founded to provide reading, writing and arithmetic tutelage, it had, within 15 years, added engineering and construction to its curriculum.

Those subjects remain a bedrock of Hartlepool College of Further Education’s semesters today, thanks to long-standing apprenticeship partnerships with operators such as Newton Aycliffe car chassis maker Gestamp Tallent and Stillington-based Darchem Engineering.

And Darren says he and his team are honoured to be extending such a legacy. He says: “When we recently knocked an old building down here, we found a programme from its opening in 1969.

“It traced the college’s history right back to its beginnings and, as a team, we feel really proud to be harnessing such a track record and helping many more students move into successful careers as the current custodians.”

However, while ushering through the next generation of talent at the college, Darren also has another focus – the North East England Chamber of Commerce.

A member of the organisation’s Hartlepool council for nearly four years, he was recently elected the body’s chair.

And, having supported many Chamber campaigns – including the recent pre-Budget calls for greater funding across schools and colleges, and increased adult education investment – Darren says he is looking forward to further adding his expertise to deliver positive change.

He says: “There are a lot of synergies between my role as principal and that of Hartlepool chair.

“We are both employer-focused, and as a college we are delivering a curriculum that is fit for all business needs, which is an important element of the Chamber’s work. 

“As a college, we want to be part of the solutions that the Chamber is lobbying for.

“For example, there has been a lot of change in further education policy over recent years.

“We’ve had a lot of austerity since 2010 and one of the key areas that has been affected has been adult education; funding has gone down, and participation has haemorrhaged.

“As a Chamber, we need to keep on influencing policymakers and holding them to account to make sure that things are getting done, and that strategies made in Westminster are relevant to Hartlepool and the wider North East.”

As well as concentrating on education, Darren says he is keen to build on the support the Chamber has provided to organisations and business owners during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the weeks since Britain left the European Union.

Praising the Chamber’s response, he also highlights areas of opportunity, such as the Teesside’s successful freeport bid, and says the college is well placed to support such growth with its raft of young and skilled workers.

“The Chamber has come out of this last year with great credit,” says Darren.

“It has been there for members around COVID-19 and has been equally superb in keeping firms and organisations up-to- 69 date on what has gone on – and what is going on – with Brexit.

“The team has really stepped up under James Ramsbotham’s leadership.

He continues: “I see there being three main areas to focus on as we go through 2021 and head into 2022.

“We’ve got to lay the foundations for economic recovery as we come out of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Furthermore, there will be many firms that will be exporting, and we need to make sure we help and support them with Brexit. “Some of the issues they will face will be teething problems, but others won’t be, and that is where, as a Chamber, we need to be alongside them to help them through.

“We also need to make sure our local areas succeed economically too, from Hartlepool and the Tees Valley, to the wider North East, and there are some really exciting projects that are helping with that.

Hartlepool, for example, has just received financial support in the Budget to transform local cultural projects, and Teesside’s successful freeport bid will really help the area bounce back and level up.

“The freeport bid on Teesside – which is part of the Teesworks development – is focused on areas likes offshore wind and the decarbonisation agenda, which will both be crucial to the UK’s successes going forward.

“As a college, we are ready to play a role in all of this by ensuring the talent continues to be available for companies wanting to grow and expand.”