"We're here to support people and develop them" - Helping students to achieve their ambitions at Calderdale College

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
"If we've got one job, that's it," says principal John Rees.

Calderdale College, he ethuses, is the escalator that connects students from the world of education to the world of work.

"It's creating opportunities, creating an inclusive organisation where there is something that can suit you.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"We try to get an idea of what's your starting point, where do you want to get to, and how you try and put that journey together.

A student at Calderdale CollegeA student at Calderdale College
A student at Calderdale College

"Everybody's escalator is different, some are longer and flatter, some are quite steep, some are faster.

"But you can't plan the journey if you don't understand their starting point and their intended end point.

"We're here to support people and develop them so that whenever they leave us, they're in a better place than when they started, and closer to what they want to achieve."

It is very much Calderdale's College.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Trainee chefs at Calderdale CollegeTrainee chefs at Calderdale College
Trainee chefs at Calderdale College

It could be the nurse who cared for you in hospital, the bricklayer who built your house or the plumber who repaired your broken tap.

It could be the chef at your favourite restaurant, the owner of the new shop down the road, or the borough's future sports star.

Students come from every corner of Calderdale, and hopefully become graduates who contribute to the local economy and community for decades to come.

"We have really good relationships with other Calderdale institutions and organisations," says John.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
John ReesJohn Rees
John Rees

"Whether it's the council, large employers such as Lloyds Banking Group. Two years ago we had almost no relationship with them, but they provide input to our business and computing programmes.

"We also support Covea with a large amount of their apprenticeship delivery, and they support us with input into the digital offer we have.

"We work with dozens of voluntary organisations, with the Piece Hall. Some of our students are creating artwork for them, and they're facilitating a pop-up business for a group of our students.

"We worked with around 20 healthcare organisations looking at what's required for healthcare workers, and as a result of working with them, we've re-written part of our health and social care curriculum."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
John ReesJohn Rees
John Rees

"The college focuses on technical and vocational qualifications, and doesn't offer academic qualifications.

"Our relationships with employers allows us to develop high value programmes built around technical skills for employment," John says.

"Creative and digital are emerging areas in the job market, we're very focused on health and care, which is a huge employer in our area, as is financial services.

"We do other things but we shape what we teach in the context of what people might do when they leave.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"We also support brickwork, carpentry, joinery, plumbing, electrical."

Of around 200 general further education colleges in England, Calderdale College was fourth in the most recent set of results for 16-18-year-olds

"I'm proud of the team, our students. There's a huge amount of work that goes into that, but it's nice to see all that reflected in a great end result for students," says John.

"The end result of that is more of them progressing to the next level of study, or employment."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Nine out of 10 students at the college go on to employment or further study.

"The level of success our students have achieved, and that it's not been a one-off," John says. "It's been sustained and we've shifted the dial in terms of what students can achieve here.

"My team have worked incredibly hard to create those opportunities for students. It doesn't happen by accident, it takes hard work, dedication and commitment to engage with change, embrace new ways of doing things and recognise we're trying to do the best for our students.

"I'm an extremely lucky principal, because I wouldn't swap my team for any other."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

John, 48, lives in the Luddenden valley and started his career as a teacher at a college in the East Midlands after leaving university, eventually becoming deputy principal.

He then became group deputy principal for one of the largest college groups in England

became principal at Calderdale College in April 2015

"I love it. I love the variety, no two days are the same. I love working with the people I work with," he says.

"There's nothing like seeing the impact of what we do for people, which you see most at awards events and graduations.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"When you see how much it means to them and their families, that's the reason we're here, that's the most rewarding thing.

"Most people you encounter have some connection to the college, and you know you're making a difference when you meet someone and the reason they're in employment is partly because they got something of value from the college."

Value is something John has to increasingly get from every penny of his budget, with further education funding being squeezed over recent years.

When asked what his biggest challenge is as principal, he was unequivocal.

"Funding, without a shadow of a doubt.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"Because we do so many things, it comes from different sources.

"Our 16-18-year-old's are funded from the government through grants, adults are partly funded from the government, partly by fees and partly by loans.

"All our higher education provision is funded by student loans, and then we do a load of other stuff which us funded by projects we bid for, but that's time-limited and project-based.

"They are under pressure because a lot of that has originated from the EU. If and when we leave, what replaces that is anybody's guess.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"We've also had 10 years' worth of government cuts or freezes, and 10 years' worth of inflation and other cost pressures.

"We'll see what happens in future. There is a marginal increase in funding coming ahead, but it's a drop in the ocean compared to the cuts that preceded it.

"What it creates is bits of the college that are better equipped than others because of the phasing of investments.

"We've done everything we can to minimise the difference, but with more money we could do an awful lot more."

But budget pressures haven't lessened ambition.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"If we'd struggled financially or in terms of results, we might be in the scenario of intervention and not being able to determine our own future," John says.

"But we feel our future is in our hands, and we can think about what that future looks like.

"We have a bit of autonomy and independence. But the big question is what we do with that.


"We're thinking about what the next five years looks like, about the part we play in Calderdale and the vision that's been created for it by the council.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"We did six months' worth of detailed consultation with students, staff, employers, community partners, other organisations we work with, to ask them what they wanted the college to look like in five years' time.

"Our ambition is to become the best college in the country. Somebody's got to be. We're starting from a very good place, and as long as we stick to our principles, then why not?"

But budgets and targets are not the heart of the college, the students are.

"When we do our celebration events, we ask staff to think about a student who they think is particularly worthy of recognition, and you get more suggestions than you can cope with," John says.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"There are extraordinary tales of success. One area in particular has been our involvement with Project Search, which is a supported internship for students with high needs and is a partnership with us, the hospital and the council.

"It gives students job coaching, career development skills, off-the-job training.

"Going to their graduation, hearing the number of them that have gained employment in those settings was great.

"Students which have a range of additional support needs don't often get the chance to secure employment, and that programme has been a hugely important addition.

"Those are life-changing experiences.

"It's not just about churning out qualifications, it's about creating better life chances for people. And I think we do that pretty well."