The generation who transformed a college

Four members of staff are retiring after many years of commitment. 'They are principal Ann Williams, vice principal Phil Thirkettle, Dennis Stevens and Elizabeth Bray.''FL ; Vice principal Phil Thirkettle, Elizabeth Bray, ' principal Ann Williams, Dennis Stevens
Four members of staff are retiring after many years of commitment. 'They are principal Ann Williams, vice principal Phil Thirkettle, Dennis Stevens and Elizabeth Bray.''FL ; Vice principal Phil Thirkettle, Elizabeth Bray, ' principal Ann Williams, Dennis Stevens
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Asked what gives her the most pride looking back on 33 years at West Suffolk College, Dr Ann Williams’ answer boils down to ‘quality’.

“It was getting ‘outstanding’ from Ofsted, being a beacon college, being a Sunday Times best employer,” she said. “That wasn’t me but the college — it was all the effort that went into making sure the students get the best education.”

Four members of staff are retiring after many years of commitment. 'They are principal Ann Williams, vice principal Phil Thirkettle, Dennis Stevens and Elizabeth Bray.''FL ; Principal Ann Williams.

Four members of staff are retiring after many years of commitment. 'They are principal Ann Williams, vice principal Phil Thirkettle, Dennis Stevens and Elizabeth Bray.''FL ; Principal Ann Williams.

Ensuring the students receive a quality education is taken for granted as she retires as principal this week, yet it was not at the forefront of college concerns when she joined as a full-time lecturer.

In fact, she had been there about eight years before anyone even thought of putting someone in charge of curriculum quality and student services.

That was her first managerial job in the late 1980s.

Ann had worked as a part time lecturer at the college’s Northgate Annexe while doing her PhD, then spent a year working for a pharmaceutical company before returning as a full time liberal studies lecturer.

“In the pharmaceutical industry there were regulated procedures for everything,” she said. “There were actually no quality systems in the college at all.

“The notion that anybody would dream of going in and commenting on anyone’s lectures or, even worse, consulting students on what they thought, was unbelievable.”

Yet she remembers teaching unions objecting because it might single out poor lecturers.

Long term colleague Phil Thirkettle, who retires after 27 years this week as vice principal curriculum and quality at the college, says it was a time of change.

“It was a situation that demanded people who were young, flexible and liked the students,” he said. “It was a whole generation in our 20s and 30s who came in and changed the way education was done.”

Ann agrees and adds: “There were an awful lot of teachers who, whatever the subject, taught from the front.

“Part of the problem was you had lecturers who were enthusiastic about their subjects, but not interested in the people.”

Both of them had first hand experience of less than inspiring teaching. Ann failed her 11-plus. After secondary modern school, she had to go to an up-market girls’ school to continue her education, except they didn’t want to teach anything a housewife wouldn’t need, like chemistry.

Ann demanded a move to a comprehensive’s sixth form, and studied what she wanted.

Phil comes from a farming family and left school at 15. He moved to London in the swinging ‘60s and did a variety of jobs including working as a builder and in a foundry, when he started doing A-levels at evening classes.

“I didn’t thrive in a school situation but further education gave me the chance to start again,” he said.

He got a degree as an adult student and started part time teaching with Open University in the mid-80s.

He joined West Suffolk in 1986 as a business studies lecturer.

Staff having experience outside teaching is normal for further education.

Phil said: “There are very few like you get in schools who have gone from sixth form to teacher training college, university and back to school.

“It helped me grow up, which was key to working with students.

“Without that you couldn’t have a successful college where you have people doing degree and post graduate courses alongside people in special needs classes. There is a link there in terms of valuing them all and helping them.”

Ann added: “Part of it is that we teach vocational subjects.”

It is no surprise Phil has reservations about forcing young people to stay at school.

“I wish Government, rather than forcing people to stay in education until they’re 18, would say you could leave at 16 but be entitled to two or three years further education,” he argues.

Ann, who in 1984 was the first lecturer to return after maternity leave because ‘at the time women didn’t do that’, has worked hard to give women opportunities. She also sees making further education available later on in life as important.

“When you look at our access to work courses and the women there you see people who a year ago would never have seen themselves as being a nurse or a midwife,” she said.

Both are going to miss the buzz of working with students, but Ann said: “It’s the right time to go now for the college.”

Phil said: “Just like when we came here in the ‘80s and changed the college, it’s going to need that again.”

Ann has at least been able to move her office into the new building she spent so much time working towards and will hand over to successor Nikos Savvas from there.

She says she has two frustrations: “One is that I don’t believe either young people or their parents recognise the success the college has as a route to university.

“Schools often tell students that if you want to be a hairdresser or mechanic you go to college.”

In fact, 41 per cent of its A/AS level and advanced apprenticeship students go on to higher education.

Her other frustration? She points at the sections of red brick wall that once bordered Gibraltar Barracks and were deemed too historic to take down.

“My new building is marred by that wall that has no purpose,” she protested, as Phil chuckled.

Ann and Phil are not the only ‘class of the ‘80s’ retiring this week.

Dennis Stevens, programme leader higher education business management, joined as a part time lecturer in September 1983.

He is one of few staff who has served under four principals.

He was instrumental in bringing higher education to the college, first through links with Anglia Ruskin University and now with the University Campus Suffolk.

Elizabeth Bray, head of low carbon business development, joined as a business education lecturer in 1981.

She took early retirement in March 1997 but returned a month later as a project manager.

She took her current role in July 2012 on a fixed term contract which has ended.

Other retirees are Janis Cleveland after 19 years and Graham Allum after 11 years.