Tony Lewin

Newcastle College principal Tony Lewin

Preparing the future workforce

Newcastle College principal Tony Lewin is overseeing an ever-evolving curriculum to ensure the training it offers the next generation is bang up to date with the needs of employers. Paul Robertson reports.

Whether it is aerospace, aviation, healthcare or a whole host of other sectors – Newcastle College is working with employers to position itself at the heart of the region’s skills agenda. College principal Tony Lewin is proud of the fact that over 90% of learners successfully progress either into employment or continued education.

He sees the scale of the college – it is the third largest in the country with a turnover of £61m, 15,000 full and part-time students, a staff of 1,100 and is part of the wider Newcastle College Group – as an advantage in attracting the best talent to the city, with a campus boasting facilities few can match and with a national reach.

The fact it is now a Higher Education institution in its own right is opening up new avenues to Higher and Degree Apprenticeships and while Mr Lewin is keen to promote this progression, he is looking to engage with even more employers to work with students at all levels.

“One of the biggest opportunities is around the increased awareness of apprenticeships,” he says. “For so many years they disappeared from the curriculum offer when they are in fact an ideal way to support and develop an individual and a business.

“Opening apprenticeships up above Level 3 is the game changer. No longer is it just about a low-level apprenticeship as some people perceived it. There is recognition you can start at the college on a Level 2 course and take a vocational career path which leads to a degree.

“One of our biggest challenges is to engage employers when they are busy with businesses to run – we need to marry the employer’s time and effort with the students who can become apprentices. We need to find enough employers to work with us.”

The main campus stands tall at one of the gateways to the city, most easily seen driving across the Redheugh Bridge from Gateshead. Mr Lewin has been at the helm for almost two years having joined from New College Durham where he was deputy principal, previously leaving a career in local government to take a lecturing post in business and IT.

He grew up in Consett, a town which has had to reinvent itself since the loss of the steelworks, a background which has stood him in good stead for the ever-changing skills landscape. “You have to be part of the bigger picture - we will sit down with anyone; individuals, employers and local authorities to discuss how we can help,” he says. “It is all about listening to what they are trying to achieve and putting the appropriate actions in place to get there.

“Our approach to study is different to universities, as our learners are not progressing through the traditional A’ level route. The methods of study and assessment are appropriate to that. A’ levels were the gold standard so it is important to engage all stakeholders and explain if you study with a college the end output is still the same. You can walk away with a degree as well but if it is not that route you want to take then you will still be more employable by successfully completing the vocational route.”

Apprenticeships are a key part of Newcastle College’s offering. “We are responding to the regional skills needs by developing a stronger and more focused role in delivering apprenticeships and vocational higher education especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) areas,” says Mr Lewin.

“We serve several different stakeholder groups – the individual student making a career choice with their own expectation and progression plan and we have the skills needs of the employers to provide upskilling of their current staff and to position those younger students on the right trajectory to be employable at the end of their education.

“We also uniquely have that opportunity to take our students beyond the normal Further Education offer and progress them through to Higher Education – a student can start with us at Level 2 and walk away with a degree. Our breadth of offer puts us in a good position.”

The digital sector is one of a number the college serves and it expects will play a big role in the expansion of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships. Leading global professional services company Accenture uses Newcastle College for its Level 5 foundation degree in software engineering, while the team is in active discussions with other digital businesses.

AerospaceA facility at Newcastle International Airport is home to trainee aerospace technicians learning how to maintain aircraft, while a purpose-built rail academy just over the river provides a realistic training environment for students, apprentices and employees to upskill.

“We are a technical and professional institution so our aviation and rail academies are a unique selling point,” said Mr Lewin. “It prepares our students to be employable within the industries, provides them with a professional qualification and crucially gives them the license to practice in the industry.

“Our rail academy has direct links with employers like Nexus and Network Rail, as well as companies operating in the supply chain in areas such as track maintenance. It is a developing market due to the biggest investment in rail since Victorian times and this facility means we are ahead of the game. We take on full time students and, as they qualify, employers take them on to apprenticeships and stay with us.

“It is a tri-partite relationship. It is pointless preparing students for a job or career they are not able to do. The employers are fundamental in providing advice as to what the qualification should look like but equally in ensuring the experience the students get meets their needs. Rail students are taken to operate on live tracks so they do Health and Safety. Nothing simulates being stood on the side of the tracks as the train goes past – you have to experience that and understand the safety critical aspect.”

The Healthcare sector is a growing area for apprenticeships. Two floors of the Parsons Building have been set up as a hospital facility consisting of two hospital wards with patient mannequins, a paediatric ward, an intensive care unit and a facility to train students on domiciliary care.

“Employers approach us to select their next apprentices as they see our students excelling, following training that is mapped to industry sector needs – it happens a lot in health as well as automotive and rail,” he said. “It is a proving ground, giving the students a competitive edge that employers really value. They can then hit the ground running as apprentices. Not all workplaces can cover the range of experiences required whereas the college environment can.”

Working with young people, teachers and career advisors is a critical part of the college’s recruitment process, especially when it comes to apprenticeships where, despite the increased profile of the vocational route, there is still a gap in understanding.
Mr Lewin says: “We engage with all schools from Berwick down to Durham – we are based in the city but being in the North East’s capital we are very much a regional college and our student population reflects that.

“We bring teachers and careers advisors to the college, give them a tour of facilities, the chance to talk with students and employers – they are influencers of the future generation so they are the ones we start with. We explain to parents that an apprenticeship can lead to the same employment destination as if students took A’ levels or a degree – this is still not widely known.

“There is literature and advice events for parents and students to talk to us about the opportunities, the jobs and the ability to further their education up to degree level.

Healthcare“Think of Newcastle College departments as faculties within a university – following the Privy Council awarding NCG taught degree awarding powers we don’t have to go anywhere else to devise and deliver degree level qualifications. We have a full validation process which allows us to work with an employer and produce what they are looking for and validate it as a degree.

“For example, in engineering somebody might finish a vocational qualification or A’ levels and then progress to a Higher Apprenticeship within their subject area and study the theory, and - this is the nice bit - get their hands dirty in terms of the practical side. That is where we sit - they can actually pick up the spanner.”

Currently the college attracts 5,000 16-18 year-olds, with 3,000 Higher Education students. Going forward, Mr Lewin anticipates apprentices will make up a higher proportion of those going into HE, while supporting employers through the new Apprenticeship Levy is an immediate priority.

“For those businesses who must pay the levy the question is how they do more and better with their training and development budgets to add value to the business, upskilling existing staff but also taking on new creative and innovative people to drive the business forward,” says Mr Lewin.

“Then there are the smaller companies, those with 1-50 staff, nearly all of whom won’t pay the levy, but how it affects them is key. They may not have the cashflow to make best use of it, which is where we can come in with an advisory service to support the whole process. If you are a plumber and want to take on an apprentice but don’t want to be saddled with the administration, we can do that for you – it is the bulk of the market.

“For those organisations with a large levy they can use it to address their Corporate Social Responsibility in the wider community by supporting apprenticeships among those that don’t always get the opportunity, such as NEETs [Not in Employment, Education or Training] or the long term unemployed. We are having conversations with employers who want to do exactly that, which fits with the college ethos and purpose of unlocking potential through learning.”

Mr Lewin says another advantage for Newcastle College is the fact it has national reach as part of NCG. With four colleges and two training providers, an annual turnover of £178 million and 3,000 staff spread across 61 locations, NCG is not only one of the leading providers of education, training and employability across the UK, it is also one of the largest not for profit training groups. It works with more than 133,000 learners and 20,000 businesses each year and has helped more than 23,000 apprentices into work.

“Being part of the most successful education group is a great North East success story,” says Mr Lewin. “We can draw on that national expertise as a training provider – big employers use us because of our national standing that other colleges cannot provide.”One recent example is the BBC where Newcastle College won a bid to become the national learning provider for the BBC’s innovative broadcast and communications apprenticeships.

The apprenticeship, aimed at individuals aged 18 and over has been designed to address a skills gap in broadcast multi-skilled operations and communications engineering. Through the programme at Newcastle College, the BBC intends to upskill its workforce and replenish the talent pool in the UK for the benefit of the broadcast industry.

The BBC plans to train up to 16 employees each year towards a Level 3 Advanced Certificate Award in Digital Technologies. Over a 22-month period, apprentices will be based at various BBC offices across England, spending periods away from the business on block-release study at Newcastle College.

Mr Lewin says many employers are missing out on the opportunity to work with Newcastle College and is urging them to take advantage of its offering.

“I understand they have the immediate work pressures to deal with but I would say to them take the time to have one meeting with us to talk about the opportunities. The commitment from employers isn’t substantial but the return on that investment could be substantial – their advice and input has the biggest impact in ensuring we are delivering the future workforce with the right skills at the right time.”