Five years on – Coleg Cambria CEO reflects on the union of Deeside and Yale to form the leading NE Wales college
The merger between Deeside College – of which I was principal – and Yale College in Wrexham was first mooted a decade ago, as the Welsh Government was calling for a more strategic direction for further education in Wales.
In north east Wales, Deeside College had already expanded to include the agricultural institution Llysfasi and the Welsh College of Horticulture at Northop, which were big moves in the sector.
It was then decided to take the huge step of bringing Deeside and Yale together.
I remember thinking how mammoth a task this was at the time and where did we even start, given the size of both institutions.
What was vital to me was having a vision and the ambition to do something special for this region from a position of strength.
I could see how this would work, and with a lot of persistence and energy it has.
A takeover of one or the other college was never going to be the right way to go, somebody was going to feel like the loser had that happened.
Most importantly of all, for me, was making sure we absolutely valued and looked after the culture and history of both colleges while creating something new.
To do that both Yale and Deeside had to be disbanded, which was a massive effort from all concerned but ultimately the correct strategy in the long-term.
It was a challenging time around 2012/13 when things started to take shape, and for a while, I personally was doing two or three jobs at the same time, which was tough, but we achieved what we set out to do.
From day one we consulted with students and staff and discovered the most important thing for all of them was retention of core values.
We held about 40 sessions where they and external stakeholders voted for what really mattered to them.
We eventually played all this back to them – the keywords and messages that kept appearing – and after collating all of the information this formed the vision for what would become Coleg Cambria.
I can’t speak to the staff about values every day but if you have a culture with their beliefs at the forefront then you’re on the right track.
Empowering them makes a difference because after all, the college belongs to the students, the employees and our community – they are at the heart of everything we stand for.
I am proud to have received awards and plaudits on a personal level but I have never seen them as such; they are for the whole team.
Being named FE leader of the year at the annual TES (formerly Times Educational Supplement) FE Awards was a major honour but one that reflects on all of the staff here, not just me.
Looking back on our achievements there are many that resonate with me, but I think our progress in the Euro and Worldskills competitions stands out.
We only began taking part five years ago but have gone on to become one of the top colleges, regularly winning prizes and even having two students – Ethan Davies and Joseph Massey – represent Team UK in Abu Dhabi last year.
That’s a major achievement and has been a phenomenal platform for the work-based learners to showcase their abilities.
How we’ve developed the Welsh language at our CAMU hub in Wrexham, our charity work and the development of Active Cambria – encouraging better health and wellbeing and mindfulness across all of our campuses – are other reasons to be proud.
It was a big decision two years ago for me to look at my own position and how it should develop. I took a step back and felt that I couldn’t give the role of principal as much time as it needed if I was making so many strategic decisions for Coleg Cambria as a whole. Given our rapid growth, it just wasn’t feasible.
I presented to the Board that maybe the role should be split, and after questioning me hard on that I became chief executive.
I’m still leading the organisation and accountable for our position and key decisions, but it gives me more time to focus on our direction of travel.
It’s a challenging time in further and higher education, you have to work hard just to stay still.
We’ve managed to do that and seen growth in other areas, the most significant being apprenticeships and employer-facing courses, where we should continue to see an increase of 10% year on year.
We are also looking at further investment after spending up to £40m in the last two years on a new business school at Northop, the engineering facility in Wrexham, and the aerospace HE centre and sixth form complex in Deeside – which was a huge step for us.
We have unbelievable facilities here, as good as anything you’ll find in the country, and er recently unveiled plans for a £20m revamp of the Yale campus in Wrexham.
In 2013 we set an ambitious direction and pursued it with a clear vision. We have the right people working in the right roles, which makes life a lot easier and keeps us moving forward.
If anything we have overachieved, making a surplus every year and stretching the boundaries of teaching and learning. We will never stop working hard, trying to improve and putting our students and staff at the centre of all operations.
We have high standards, and they’ll only get higher.
Those values, behaviours and the vision were going to be key to our success, and we have followed through on all of them.
The Estyn inspection in 2016 reflected that, as we were given a rare double – ‘excellent’ for both current performance and prospects for improvement, the highest grade possible.
As I look back with one eye on the future, I can say with conviction that this was one of, if not the very best merger the UK has ever seen. I truly believe that.
By David B Jones OBE Chief Executive Officer of Coleg Cambria.
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