First year CEO reflections

Blog

Words by Mark Smith
Posted 1 month ago

Now we are a year old. So what have we learnt?

Today our new Year 12 students enrolled. A convenient point in time to pause and reflect on the journey we have come on since this time last year when Ada became ‘real’ for the first time and our initial digital pioneers breathed life into the hopes and dreams that Tom and I and the Founding Ada team had built over the preceding months and years. 

There were times before August 2016 when I was uncertain Ada would ever see the light of day as the first new FE College in England since 1993 (in fact the College only came to be named after Ada in 2015 – for the first 18 months or so it was called Code College!), particularly after some fraught final negotiations around our building.

But we got there. Now we are a year old. So what have we learnt? We were unsure how meaningful we could make the industry engagement in the College. In contrast, we have been constantly surprised by how much effort digital professionals are willing to put in once engaged. The trick seems to be ensuring relevance and providing clarity of purpose and expectations – similar in many ways to planning an effective lesson and guiding students learning! Tina, Ian and the other 6th form teachers have done a stellar job in providing this guidance to industry partners who have responded by regularly and repeatedly visiting us in Tottenham Hale (the rapidly emerging transport hub of North East London thanks to Haringey council!).  

I think industry professionals want to engage when they can see genuine benefit and relevance to their expertise and experience – too often schools, colleges and businesses expect and accept too little in terms of ‘engagement’. Our challenge now of course is to ensure this meaningful engagement continues with larger student volumes and a wider variety of topics. The #AlwaysAda wall is going to fill up pretty quickly at this rate!

The Deloitte project at the end of the last academic year made me pause and reflect on how far our pioneering 6th form cohort had come as they all engaged in their IoT-focused agile product development challenge moving across roles in their respective teams and in many cases effortlessly interacting with, and at times challenging, experienced industry professionals: A long way from the slightly reticent students who got off the bus at Here East in August 2016! Individuals take time to change and grow and if you don’t make time to reflect you don’t realise quite how much progress students can make in an academic year, which is just 10 months long. Some of our 6th form students are barely recognizable from when they enrolled. Almost everyone who visits the College comments on how articulate and friendly our students and apprentices are, which is a source of constant pride and I know something Tom places a lot of value on as Dean of the College.

Having said that, when our inaugural apprentices enrolled in May 2017, I was struck by how much more developed their personal organisation skills were compared to many of our 6th form students. This is definitely an area that we need to focus on more as a staff team. Hardip reminded recently me that different people develop at different rates and that boys and girls develop different attributes at different speeds (personal organisation being one that girls often grasp earlier!) – yet another argument why we need to increase the number of girls in our 16-19 cohort, which we seem to be making progress on thanks to the support of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, our diversity recruitment partner. 

The Apprentices need to be treated differently. It was fantastic to enrol the first cohort and the few days at Wyboston with them at the start was a definite highlight – I really liked going for a walk the wrong way round a golf course just before we left. They worked tirelessly – 8 weeks full time study is a lot and I think, thanks to their feedback, we probably learnt as much as them. There is definitely room for improvement – the diversity of past experience and prior knowledge is a new challenge but their end-of-launchpad projects were a real highlight and I think an eye-opener for those 6th form students that attended the final presentations – I am still hoping to see the garden design app on the Play Store sometime soon.

A personal highlight for me has been running the kayaking club and spending time with the students in a less formal capacity. The personal development trip to the Lake District, organised by Tom, was also a great way to cap-off the year. I like that Ada is developing a good range of extra-curricular activities that challenge the prevailing perception that students who are really into tech can’t be sporty, active and hugely creative. I’m keen to ensure a first overseas trip soon as well – one student put together a business case to organise a visit to Tokyo!

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year. We have built a bigger team that I know is priming Ada for success in the year’s to come and means we are not now quite stretched so thin; but those months up until Christmas will linger long in my memory as we worked out really what we need to run England’s first brand new FE College in 25 years (and I also worked with Farhad to develop a degree programme in record time working with the OU!).

Sir Rod Aldridge, our inaugural chair and continuing board member, once said to Tom and I that we should make sure we keep track of all that has happened on our journey to establish Ada as it would be a unique time in our lives, like establishing Capita was for him. I have a folder that I put photos and documents etc. in and now writing this blog might also be a good way to keep track. I know though that the highlights of this first year will stay with me forever. 

Bring on 70+ new 6th form students and 40+ new apprentices in the next 6 weeks. I can’t wait for Ada Lovelace Day on October 10th when we will celebrate with our supporters and over 110 6th form students and 50+ apprentices from an amazing range of companies from Google, the National Archives and Janus Henderson to Deloitte, EY and News UK – the demand for aspirational diverse tech talent is universal!