Debbie Lavin openly admits that when it came to school lessons she simply wasn’t interested.
Despite attending a top Grammar School, and being academically bright, she opted to ‘switch off’ when she was 15 year of age; left school shortly afterwards, and eventually worked in a bar.
A few years later, however, Debbie began to see the errors of her ways, so she decided to put her past behind her and make a fresh start. Now she provides living proof that it is never too late to learn, having held the prestigious post of Principal of the Isle of Wight College for nearly a decade.
Under her leadership, and with the help of the professional team around her, the IW College has grown in stature to become arguably the leading learning centre on the Island. In her 10 years in charge, Debbie has seen student numbers grow from 850 to 2,000, with a comprehensive range of subjects from bricklaying to degrees.
Debbie, a ‘Lancashire lass’ from near Wigan, reflected on the second opportunity she gave herself. She admitted: “I didn’t enjoy education or learning at school. I went to a high-flying school, and I was very able and academic, but dare I say it, I wasn’t really interested.
“When I was at school I switched off in a big way. But something happened to me as I was growing up that said I needed to change, so I went to college when I was 19. I realised jobs and wages were linked to qualifications, and I didn’t seem to have too many. I knew that if I didn’t do something I would still be earning the same wages two years down the line.
“Perhaps it was the wake-up call, so I came back into education as an adult, attended university in Bolton, and became something of a lifelong learner. I went to university for my teaching qualification, and then did my qualification in Human Resources, and later a Masters degree through the Open University.”
She continued: “I kept moving around jobs, and was even self-employed for a while with my own hotel. I like people so I kept asking myself what I could do as a profession. Training and development is about being with people, and helping them to move on, so I took the huge risk of giving up my job, and took up teaching at 25.”
Since then Debbie has taught in five colleges, starting at St Helens in Lancashire, and then Essex, Cambridge regional college and Braintree before moving to the Island in January 2004.
Having felt she was not testing herself enough in previous employments, Debbie soon realised the IW College was the challenge she had been seeking. She reflected: “I was lucky when I came here because I followed Bill Grady, who had been Principal for two years. Before that the college had been in quite a terrible state, and even when I arrived there were probably more problems than I had anticipated. But in the October before I arrived they had had a good inspection under Bill’s leadership.
“However, there were still many issues because the college had just come out of recovery. But I knew they were never going to advertise a post that was all fabulous so I expected it. The college had come through an inspection that said it was all right for two years, so for me it was wobbly, and could easily have gone backwards again.”
Debbie’s softly-softly approach soon began to help the recovery process. She said: “As a northerner I find that if you are hard-working and transparent, then people will follow in an appropriate way.”
Students at the IW College are primarily 16 to when you ‘drop off the peg’. But there is also a school liaison programme where 14 to 16 year olds attend from their schools a couple of days a week.
“College is a continuation of many people’s education. Depending on how well a student has done at school gives them access at a certain level. But there is a place for all levels of students, and we offer places for those with learning difficulties and disabilities, which I am very proud of,” Debbie explained.
It is never too late. We have access students who are older learners returning to study; who want to change their lives. I am passionate about those students because they have been like me and taken longer, or have had families, and don’t see how they can return.
“The older you get, if you don’t stay in learning the more fear you develop, so when I meet the access students each year I share a little bit of me and they like that because it gives them hope, and I think my job is about giving people hope.”
In terms of subjects at the IW College, there are 15 sector skills areas and they are divided into many layers – so in terms of subjects around 120 are on offer, including the full range of AS and A levels and degrees.
There are about 350 support and teaching staff, and there is no problem recruiting. Debbie says: “I believe the Island attracts people because it is lazy day sailing; everyone’s picture postcard. So I don’t believe it is too difficult to attract people. I do worry there may not be enough employment for families here but we have had no problem recruiting.
“We recruit in a terrier-like way; we don’t give in, it is all about tenacity, and we would never put someone in front of a class unless they are perfectly qualified in their trade.”
She added: “When I arrived I felt the college was crying out for stability, and if I had been asked how long it would take I would have said maybe five years. I believe I still provide that stability, and as an organisation we are reliable and solid. For the last 10 years the results have got better, and that feels good.
“The thing I find in this job is that there are never two days the same. I am fidgety and that is good for me – my whole life is a fast pace. I get bored easily, so I need to keep me motivated, and every year I challenge myself ‘should I still be here’? At the moment the answer is yes. I am still excited by the place, and the day I am not will be the time to go, and I genuinely will.”