“There was something quite special about this one”: An interview with Weston College’s Dr Paul Phillips

08 June 2020

Last year, Weston College won the Give a Grad a Go Employer of the Year Award, reflecting its unique further education offering that helps thousands of students each year develop their skills and talent. We spoke to Principal of the College Dr Paul Phillips to discover what made Weston College enter the awards, what he made of the experience and what the college has been doing since.

    1. What was your motivation for entering the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards?

Weston College is a leader in the field of Education, retaining ‘Ofsted’ Outstanding since 2013, having also won the Times Educational Supplement College of the Year and numerous Association of Colleges (AoC) Beacon Awards for excellence in the sector.

However, we have also exponentially grown as a business from c.£9 million in 2001 to c.£67 million presently, employing over 750 staff, holding both Investors in People Gold and Champion status. This level of growth has not been without its challenges. Funding cuts have meant that we have had to diversify our training capability, and really pull together as a team across the organisation. Because of this, we have been highly successful in winning commercial training contracts, working with some of the biggest employers in the UK such as GKN, Airbus, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice and so on.

Therefore, from a business point of view, we wanted to enter the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards not only to showcase our achievements, but also to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best businesses in the UK in a bid to get independent recognition for our workforce development strategy. The focus on which has allowed us to deliver the best customer service for our learners and staff and to create a growth mindset for staff to sustain and further develop the organisation going forward.

        2. What is it like to attend the awards ceremony?

The College, as mentioned above has attended many national awards ceremonies, but there was something quite special about this one—the prestige, the sense of achievement. Looking around the room and knowing that you were sat next to the very best businesses in the UK was a massive achievement itself. The awards also provided great networking opportunities, both at different stages of the judging process and on the evening itself. Looking back, it was a truly inspiring evening.

Listening to Tim Peake as the first British ESA astronaut to travel in space was really captivating for everyone in the room and I would like to thank all the sponsors for making it a memorable evening. The exposure that we received following the awards has not only served to raise our profile with other businesses, the media and stakeholders regionally, but also nationally.

Following the awards, as the Principal of the College I was so inspired that I wanted to commemorate winning the Employer of the Year category by launching the ‘Proud to Be a Fresh Start Employer’ scheme, for businesses to be more open minded when looking at CVs and kickstart ‘socially inclusive’ recruitment in the UK.

The idea has been a simple one, based on businesses pledging to be more open-minded when considering CVs in order to discover untapped talent from groups in society that might be struggling to get a second chance at career employment. Businesses can sign up to the free pledge to receive a ‘Proud to be a Fresh Start Employer’ logo to promote on their website.

We all know talented people who have struggled to return to employment after various life events whether this is someone who has been ill or who has been caring for children or elderly relatives with a gap in their CV, or people who have recovered from episodes of mental ill-health and addiction, or suffered stigma due to homelessness or exiting prison, as well as disabled people or those struggling to transition from the armed services. I felt that on the back of winning Employer of the Year, if we could encourage more employers to display the ‘Proud to be a Fresh Start Employer’ logo, it would give hope and confidence to many job applicants that there are a number of employers out there who have pledged to be that little bit more open-minded when a CV arrives in their offices.

In essence, the ‘Fresh Start’ pledge and campaign is about opening doors and having honest conversations in recruitment, rather than closing opportunities and overlooking talent. I am pleased to say that to date over 50 employers have taken the ‘Fresh Start’ pledge across all sectors of the economy. 

    3. Weston College won the Give a Grad a Go Employer of the Year Award. From your perspective, what is it about Weston that made it such a         worthy recipient?

Aside from the College exceeding all its targets, in terms of learner achievement, employer and learner satisfaction, financial management, revenue growth and capital build programmes, I would generally say that the staff culture that we have created at Weston College is quite unique for Further Education—and as the judges pointed out, quite unique across businesses generally. They went on to add in their assessment that we had developed many workforce development strategies that other businesses could learn from and adapt.

These included the innovative ‘Body and Mind’ Framework we have developed, to create a culture of positive mental health, which offers students and staff a regular programme of timetabled lunchtime/end of day activities from Mindfulness, Have a Go Sports, Wednesday Walks etc, as a strategy for stress management, so staff can re-energise in order to continually achieve the best for their students. We have also significantly invested in peer mentoring as a strategy for staff wellbeing, which has created 83 staff mentors who have supported 305 new and existing staff in the last two years.

The College has also made significant investment in the use of emerging cloud technologies and digital infrastructure to increase business efficiency, communication and collaboration with students, stakeholders and businesses, which has also facilitated greater remote working.

    4. We’re all facing challenges this year: how has Weston College adapted to face the current COVID-19 pandemic?

As mentioned above, due to its investment in staff CPD and infrastructure for digital capability, the College was able to mobilise with impressive speed and determination to transfer all its courses to a remote learning model creating #MyVirtualCollege seven days before the College closed, which was applauded as a model of excellence for the sector with 4,043 virtual teaching/support sessions delivered in the first week. What this has meant for students is that all their normal timetabled lessons have taken place virtually at the same time as they would have done prior to lockdown. This approach has ensured that the College keeps delivering outstanding teaching to its 17,000 students.

Trying to emulate a virtual campus experience, we haveeven incorporated Body and Mind activities such as virtual mindfulness, fitness sessions, make up/barbering tutorials, fun virtual challenges, all linked to social media and operating within Microsoft Teams to foster a sense of a ‘digital community’ and reduce self-isolation.

Staff has also risen to the challenge to overcome self- isolation by self-creating strategies in peer groups such as #TuesdayTea on Teams, #Mentoring Monday and #NetflixNatters. I am so impressed with the creativity staff has shown in delivering outstanding virtual learning during the crisis, with many staff being showcased as national best practice in their field of expertise.

We have also adapted to assist businesses during lockdown, offering bespoke online training to those employees and apprentices who may have been furloughed, as well as impressive virtual support for businesses such as running #WednesdayWorkingLunch covering topics such as ‘Crisis Leadership’ and ‘Rebuilding for the New Normal’ in order to promote networking and successful roadmaps for economic recovery.

Being at the heart of our community, we have also been working in partnership with NHS and Social Care frontline services, providing training, facilities and PPE as well as assisting in Foodbank Friday. This has also included offering the College’s vacant space to be utilised at the discretion of the NHS.

For example, in the first week of lockdown, in response to the government’s call for ex-healthcare staff to return and to recruit volunteers to assist on the front line, Weston College safely upskilled 176 ex-staff returners and volunteers with vital skills, to fast track their transition to increase staffing across the region, providing a much needed respite for exhausted NHS and Social Care staff on the front line.

The recent pandemic has shown me how resilient my staff are at adapting to change, and I have seen first-hand how they have gone over and above to support each other, their students, businesses and their community. As a leader I could not be prouder, and I am confident Weston College can support the region to ‘Build Back Better’ by providing an upskilled and talented workforce.

    5. With entries nearly over for 2020, what advice would you offer anyone thinking about entering?

The Lloyds Bank National Business Awards is all about recognising and rewarding excellence across all sectors, and I would point out that excellence can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways. So, if you are excelling in a certain area of your sector, bucking the national trend or delivering real impact in other ways, then you are obviously doing something different to be a success and it’s your unique approach that counts.

As we learnt, it is not about whether you are necessarily well known to the masses, it is what you are doing to create innovation that judges are interested in. If you passionately believe that you are making a difference and exceeding against all odds, in any of the categories within the awards, you should go for it!