Turn-around in fortunes of Redbridge College which led principal Theresa Drowley to Buckingham Palace

Theresa Drowley in The Gallery

Theresa Drowley in The Gallery - Credit: Archant

Upon taking over the reins at Redbridge College in 2004, Theresa Drowley was presented with an immediate roll call of problems requiring her attention.

Theresa with some of the catering students

Theresa with some of the catering students - Credit: Archant

The fruits of her labours, though she is quick to share credit with her staff and students, have led to the institution being named the top college in Greater London and will take the 65-year-old to Buckingham Palace next month.

She was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours list for her services to further education and she has ambitious plans for the college, in Barley Lane, Little Heath, which guides more than 3,500 people through a variety of courses.

Nine years ago though, its future was far from certain, as its principal and chief executive explained.

She said: “They’d had a failed inspection and we were trying to move forward. Financially we were weak. There was no equality with pay in regards to jobs.

“Two people could be doing the same job but receiving different pay.

“We brought in the pay spine so people knew where they could get to and then we could budget for the following year.

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“That was necessary for the survival of the college.


“The next step was looking at the buildings. They had not been touched for a long time and they were not fit for purpose.”

A walk around the college with Theresa, through its Rouge Restaurant staffed by catering students onto its Evolution hair and beauty salons and into music rooms where learners are devising a soundtrack for a car advert, reveals her pride in the facilities and the people.

Alongside standard classrooms, the college, which opened in 1970, also boasts a visual arts and media company called FX Studios; its own record label Last Word Records; a gym and a Sure Start children’s centre that allows young parents to study while their children are cared for.

A previous building programme failed to come to fruition when funding from the now defunct Learning and Skills Council fell through.

But Theresa said she has more confidence in seeking money for new capital projects from the Skills Funding Agency.

Hair and beauty salons, the restaurant, a student refectory and a customer services area have been built and a gallery to allow students to showcase their work and three new science laboratories will be officially opened by popular TV physicist Professor Brian Cox in April.

Theresa said: “It was really a case of doing as much as wecould. We need to stay within the same footprint.

“One of the wings is going to be built up to two storeys.”

An under-used central quadrangle has also been earmarked for building works, with up to 30 new classrooms, a lecture theatre and a musical performance venue to be built at the college from this summer.

The student body includes around 1,800 16-to-19 year olds who have chosen not to go down the route of A-levels and adults seeking further education including a popular access to higher education course.

Theresa said: “It’s for those students who’ve not had the educational pathway you would normally have.

“They haven’t done GCSEs or A-levels.”

For 14-to-16 year olds (55 currently attend) there are courses to sit alongside their GCSEs and for school leavers, there are vocational courses such as BTECs and NVQs.

Subject areas include beauty therapy, business studies, childcare, hairdressing, information technology, science and sports studies.

But some were scrapped by the principal including a fashion and textiles course which had eight students and a construction work programme.

She said: “It wasn’t the most efficient use of the buildings.

“We’ve had to be more selective with what we offer.”

Her own winding career path took a while to work its way to education.

From her hometown of Bolton, she variously worked in an architects’ office, operated a comptometer (I had to ask – for younger readers, it’s a type of mechanical calculator), served in the Women’s Royal Air Force and played in the first England women’s basketball team.

During her time in the air force, she often helped with training.

She said: “That was the first time anyone said to me how good I was at trying to help others learn.”

Her husband’s career – she has been married for 45 years and has two children and two grandchildren – took their family to Saudi Arabia, where she also ran a nursery.

On returning to England, she took the teaching qualifications which led to a lecturing position.

Twenty-five years later, she clearly has enough experience to offer some commentary on the country’s education system and has a bugbear with the government over uncertainties in funding for colleges.

She said: “I’d like the government to stop messing around with the qualifications.

“There’s been a U-turn on the English Baccalaureates not coming in and the GCSEs are back.

“It’s hard for staff, they have all this change that’s planned.

“For instance, they’re bringing in a new funding regime. “It’s already February and we don’t know what funding we’ll have in September.”

Figures from The Data Service which measured learner achievement on full-time and short courses put Redbridge College at the top of Greater London colleges in 2010-11, and Theresa predicts it will at least be in the top two when new figures are published in May.

A recent evening for prospective pupils and parents in which she heard from five current students also reaffirmed her belief that A-levels will not always be the right path for everybody.

She said: “They’d stayed in school to do their A-levels but by the time it came to January, they knew it was not for them.

“It’s a big decision to make and the reason I think they’re gambling with A-levels, it’s down to one exam and if you don’t get those A-levels, you’ve spent two years and you’ve not got to where you want to get to.”

And with her honour at Buckingham Palace still to come, does she now have any plans to call it a day?

It doesn’t appear so.

She said: “I never wake up and think ‘oh no, I’ve got to go into work’. I love it and I’m passionate about it.”