Educate sits down with Louise Tipping, principal at the award-winning Winstanley College to talk transatlantic school trips, funding cuts and keeping standards sky high.
By Lawrence Saunders
From Northern Ireland to Wigan via Northwest Africa, Louise Tipping’s path to becoming the principal of one of the region’s top colleges has certainly been an interesting one.
A native of Lurgan, County Armagh, Louise crossed the Irish Sea to read English language and literature at Oxford before returning to her homeland to undertake her PGCE.
Despite being well on the way to becoming an educator like her father, it was her next move which Louise says “confirmed” she was right to follow in his footsteps.
“I did voluntary service overseas for two years teaching English as a foreign language to Eritrean refugees in Sudan,” she explains.
“They were fantastic young people in a very challenging situation. Our students lived in the big refugee camp called Wad Sharifi which was located just outside of Kassala.
“They went to work every morning in the town and came to school afterwards in the heat of the day.
“They were incredible young people who really wanted to get somewhere. You don’t meet people like that and put it to one side. That’s why (I chose) teaching.” Louise recalls with reverence how her young students were conscious that education “was the way to better themselves” – a notion which still colours her teaching philosophy today.
On her return to England, Louise took up a placement at a comprehensive school in Pocklington, near York, but her experiences in Sudan meant she always wanted to work with over 16’s.
A position became available at a sixth form college in Hull and so Louise began a journey in post-16 education which led to Winstanley in 2013.
Louise was under no illusions as to her primary task when taking up the principal’s job at the Wigan college rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.
“I was very clear, and the governors were very clear with me – Winstanley had to stay ‘outstanding’,” says Louise.
“There was still work to be done because even in an ‘outstanding’ college you can always improve results.”
That work included ensuring the college’s philosophy of offering a range of enrichment activities to its students continued.
From beekeeping to Latin club and trips to Los Angeles and New York, the extra-curricular opportunities available to Winstanley students is as extensive as it is remarkable.
“Although this is an outstanding college and academically very successful – it isn’t an exam factory,” explains Louise.
“Mental health is a big issue nowadays for young people. They face challenges which my generation didn’t in terms of finding a job and funding themselves through university.
“We try to make sure coming to college is fun but we also help students to switch off, make friends and learn different skills.
“It’s not always immediately obvious how beekeeping translates into employment but actually it does. There’s a lot of responsibility, timekeeping and teamwork involved.”
In terms of trips abroad, 2019 has seen politics and law students from Winstanley visit New York and Washington, whilst the performing arts and media department jetted out to Los Angeles.
The college’s ongoing commitment to offering overseas excursions has however been severely tested in the wake of cuts to central government funding.
“We are one of a gradually dwindling number of colleges which is trying to keep (trips) going,” says Louise.
“(Funding cuts) have had an overall impact in terms of how we balance our budget so we’ve had to prioritise.
“We think about every staffing appointment that we make, every enrichment activity that we run – it gets harder and harder to keep those things going.
“You’re expected to deliver more and more with less and less.
“We are one of the lucky colleges but we’ve still had to cut German. I know a lot of other colleges and schools have had to cut courses and that’s heartbreaking because that means students are losing opportunities.”
One initiative the college is running has been focused on offsetting the loss of some of these opportunities and helping to boost the number of pupils progressing to A-level and university study across the Wigan area.
As part of Winstanley’s Associate Student Programme, staff have worked with Year 10 and 11 students in partner schools to deliver subject-specific sessions and masterclasses.
“We’re an A-level specialist college so part of our mission is to make sure we raise aspirations in the Wigan area and in the partner schools that we work with,” says Louise.
“It’s all about (young people) understanding that A-levels are achievable and students from their school will have come to a college like this and done brilliantly.
“There is a lot of socioeconomic deprivation around Wigan and certainly in the North West.
“Because of the expense of going to university, a lot of students horizons shut down so it’s about making sure they’re aware about the big world out there and that A-levels are a really good route into university.”
Some of Louise’s proudest moments at Winstanley have been to witness students going on to study at prestigious universities and the news in February that no fewer than 16 current pupils have been offered places at either Oxford and Cambridge for 2019 swelled her with joy once more.
But Winstanley’s leader isn’t resting on her laurels and despite the current funding climate she retains ambitions to grow the college’s already extensive curriculum.
“We might want to introduce a couple of vocational courses because we can see that young people might benefit from that,” says Louise.
“What we’d also really like to do is develop our work with partner schools. We do some work with Wigan schools to improve science provisions in the borough and we’re a big STEM college. We’d like to develop that.
“But otherwise it’s about keeping on, keeping on being brilliant.”