South Devon College’s Laurence Frewin – Partnership Matters
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Nick Hook
One of the most exciting things about my job is that I frequently get to meet lots of new people. As a shameless extrovert who is energised by being around others, this process of meeting new people, finding out about their lives and then turning that into an article for people like you to read is hugely enjoyable. However, one of the challenges involved with this is trying as best as possible to remain neutral and objective when talking to someone who is either well known themselves or represents an organisation which is. This happened recently when I spent some time with Laurence Frewin, the soon to be Principal and CEO of South Devon College, one of the key organisations and stakeholders in the region. We covered a veritable smorgasbord of conversational topics, including vision, identity, selfies and amateur dramatics.
Originally from West London, Laurence moved to Devon as a youngster when his father retired from the Police Force. He left school after A-Levels and wanted to go straight in to employment so moved into the world of banking taking on a role as a cashier at NatWest. Here, Laurence quickly progressed through an accelerated management programme, which he described as,
“Not dissimilar to the modern banking apprenticeships offered nowadays.”
He enjoyed working for NatWest, eventually working there for seventeen years and becoming Area Retail Manager as well as working in Corporate Finance amongst other specialisms over the years. However, it started to become clear to Laurence that his trajectory in the world of finance wasn’t a long-term one. He explained,
“To put it bluntly, I decided that I didn’t want to die a Bank Manager! I felt that I had more to offer so I started to explore other possible areas of work where I could use my skills and my experience to try to make a real difference.”
This journey of exploration started when he was Branch Manager at the Exeter St Thomas branch of NatWest and he was asked to become a governor of St Thomas Primary School. He accepted and this was a turning point in Laurence’s journey as he realised that he really enjoyed working in a school environment and felt like he was really adding value in this voluntary role.
Shortly after that, he moved to Bristol where he worked for six years (still in banking) and became a mentor, both for the bank and for The Princes Trust. It was during a mentoring relationship with a local Head Teacher in Bristol that Laurence first realised the impact and difference he could make within the educational space. So much so that he continued to press in to this process of slowly gaining more experience in the world of education, taking on a hugely enjoyable voluntary role on the PTA of his children’s school.
“To be honest, I just got a bit fed up of making money for other people and serving the financial interests of a small group of shareholders. The world of ‘profit before people’ is not really me… So I decided that the time was right to make a complete career change and move into education.”
And so, sixteen years ago, Laurence took on his first full-time role in education, working on a pilot scheme between the Department for Education and Bristol City Council that saw him instated as the Business Manager of a small group of Primary Schools. This was a fresh idea at the time – to bring business experts from the private sector into public sector organisations to improve operations and finances and efficiency.
Laurence then moved into a challenging secondary school on the outskirts of Bristol which, when he turned up, was in financial dire straits. Three years later, having taken the school from deficit budget into a surplus position and improved their internal structure to boot, Laurence left with his head held high after successfully securing the role of Vice Principal, Corporate Services and Deputy CEO, which he has gone on to successfully carry out at South Devon College for the past ten years.
When I asked Laurence to describe his time at the College so far, he paused and, with a smile on his face, stated confidently,
“It has genuinely been the best ten years of my career, Joff. It has been a hugely exciting journey and we have achieved a great deal in the last decade. We’ve grown despite an extremely difficult decade (politically and economically) and we have worked tirelessly to make sure that we are in the ideal position to achieve an even more successful next ten years!”
“There is still so much for us to achieve. We are a very ambitious college who are focused on the good of our local community. It’s right there in our name! So, at the front of our minds is how we can serve and improve the lives of local people – students and otherwise. The reach and impact of a Further Education provider is huge and we contribute somewhere in the region of £32m each year back into the local economy. And with 700 staff and 10,000 students, you can see the potential for good and for positive change that all of our dedicated College staff are committed to.”
Conversation turned to exactly how an organisation like South Devon College can make a difference to the local community and beyond. It was clear that, in Laurence’s opinion, the key to impact and progress is forging positive partnerships with other stakeholders, businesses and individuals. He explained,
“We work closely with many local organisations to maximise the impact and progress that we make. Whether that is aligning agendas where appropriate or collaborating on projects with others, the way to go furthest is to go together in partnership. For us, we work closely with local authorities, the health sector, employers and many others to ensure that we are working for good at the heart of our local community. We are also committed to working alongside leading local organisations to realise the dream of Torbay establishing itself as a truly excellent place to live, work and play.”
One of the challenges that Laurence discussed with me was the role that the College plays in raising aspirations for individuals. Stopping short of getting teary-eyed, he explained to me some of the particular examples of how they have helped young people break the cycle of poverty in their family, achieve more than they ever thought possible and, in some cases, go on to forge successful careers for themselves. It was clear that making a difference for ‘the one’ is as important to Laurence as making a difference for ‘the many’. Providing those individuals with new experiences, life skills and personal development opportunities is the grand over-arching offer that South Devon College makes to its students – giving them all that they need to define, work towards and achieve their personal goals.
Another key to this positive and aspirational approach is that South Devon College wants to play their vital part in the younger generations having a positive and productive experience of education. Furthermore, through partnerships with local employers and organisations, they want to encourage and inform students about the potential that South Devon has as a place to live and work. The narrative that people have to move away to gain professional or personal validation is simply becoming untrue and South Devon College play a vital role in convincing and enabling people to this end.
They also play an important role in informing and positively affecting the local sense of identity and place. After all, the more that people talk badly of an area, the more like it is to stay or become a bad area. Likewise, the more that people show faith, investment and commitment to an area, the higher the chance of a positive critical mass gathering around them.
“Torbay and South Devon at large is a stunning place to live. Yes, it has its challenges, but I have lived here for ten years and can honestly say that I can’t imagine living anywhere else now. We have so much to offer in terms of economy, lifestyle and infrastructure. It is a fabulous place which deserves to be championed and celebrated.”
So, what does the future hold for South Devon College? Well, their visionary Hi-Tech & Digital Centre (a £17m project delivered in partnership with a number of key stakeholders) is due to open later this year. It will provide education and training to support the growing hi-tech manufacturing, digital and creative sectors in and around Torbay as well as preparing individuals for the jobs of the future in what is a fast-changing world.
Furthermore, they are on track to secure full University status by 2025, which will allow them to offer an impressive and holistic educational experience to individuals from High School age (as they have their own High School onsite) all the way up to further education and higher education. A truly impressive feat for one single educational provider.
Having spent an hour or so with Laurence, it was clear to see that aspiration and positivity shine through. His desire for the College to continue to successfully invest in others for a positive impact locally was palpable. Laurence wants to ensure that the values of the College and its committed staff continue to provide individuals with the self-belief, skills and training to go into the world and make a difference .
As Laurence moves into the role of Principal and CEO of South Devon College, he clearly takes the role seriously in the knowledge that the College can make a difference each and every day – yes, to the staff and students but, more broadly, to those who live in and around South Devon. Join me in congratulating him on his new role and cheering him on as he chooses to continue to dream of a better future for his community. We’ll be with you every step of the way Laurence.
Follow South Devon College’s Laurence Frewin on @laurencefrewin or @sdcollege on Twitter to stay up to date with all the good that they do in the region.