Changing lives

Etc. chair and financial leader Stuart talks helping to build skills for the future

Doing something that makes a real lasting difference to people’s lives has got to be the best part of life on the governing board of the Education Training Collective (Etc.).

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” says Stuart Blackett, who took the reins as chair of the board last summer.

Stuart Blackett

One year in the Etc. hot seat and he beams with pride for the Teesside-based college group, its dedicated staff, and thousands of learners.

On the back of a string of a summer success, for individuals and teams across the group, he says: “It’s the type of place where you run out of superlatives.”

The Education Training Collective comprises four colleges in the Tees Valley, Stockton Riverside College, Redcar and Cleveland College, Bede Sixth Form College, The Skills Academy (Billingham), and engineering training provider, NETA Training.

Together the Etc. sites offer everything from vocational courses and A levels to apprenticeship training, higher education, commercial and bespoke employer-led training.

It’s a world that just a few years ago Stuart admits he knew little about. Today he describes it as, “exciting and challenging – but only in a good way!”

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Mark White CBE DL, was always going to be one of those challenges, as he says: “Everybody knows Mark, or knows of him, because he is an “education-lifer.”

Considering himself somewhat unknown in education circles, it initially felt like “big shoes to fill” for the Wynyard dad-of-two, but today he says: “I now realise it is simply a case of different shoes.”

A chartered accountant by profession and chief financial officer at Railpen, Stuart brings his own unique set of strategic skills and expertise to the role. He values the part his fellow board members play, each bringing a wealth of experience to the group, among them vice chair of the board Dot Smith, who is also something of an “education-lifer”.

Appointing new Etc. chief executive and group principal, Grant Glendinning, last summer was one of the first big jobs under Stuart’s leadership.

He says: “Getting Grant in was a great achievement and it’s great to see how he has picked up the baton from Phil Cook and has continued to take us forward. I am really pleased and excited about the future.”

With big plans in the pipeline both for the Etc. and across the Tees Valley, there’s much to look forward to.

Stuart adds: “With investment coming into the area from the likes of Teesworks, the freeport and the Treasury in Darlington, it feels like we are on the cusp of something really special that could be transformative for the area.”

Recent visits to the group’s campuses from the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, and Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, as well as industry leaders, employers and our local MPs, is further testament to the part the college group has to play.

“In education we are at the heart of our community,” says Stuart. “The Tees Valley has been one of the most deprived areas in the country and we need to change that, the best way to do this is through education.”

As a dad of two young boys himself, he has even more reason to be passionate about the opportunities ahead, but he is also quick to point out that colleges are about more than your 16-to-18-year-old cohort. Colleges are changing the lives of adults too.

The key to continuing to get that right is a complex mix. He explains it involves looking to the future, not just the next two or three years, but what does 2040 look like? The college group must also be agile and adapt, while simultaneously continuing to deliver in the here and now.

“As Dot says, ‘it is standards, standards, standards’,” he says. “We have a duty to ensure our colleges are the best they possibly can be for our learners. We have to do the day job.”

At the Etc. that has included a recent £11.7m capital investment in facilities, made possible with funding from the Department for Education’s T Level Capital Funding Grant, DfE Post-16 Capacity Fund and the Redcar Town Deal Fund.

Completed works include the revamped facilities at Redcar and Cleveland College, the creation of their £3.2m Clean Energy Education Hub and a £2.4m annexe, making room for an additional 200 students at Bede. Work is now underway on a £2.8 refurb at Stockton Riverside College and there are also ambitious plans for NETA.

“There’s been a lot going on,” said Stuart with a smile. It clearly hasn’t put him off. Not a fan of hierarchy, he gives all the credit to others.

“This isn’t my day job, I already have a career. It sounds cliché but, for me, this is my way of giving something back.

“The truth is, I get a lot back out of being in that chair. It doesn’t feel like work to me, this is something I look forward to, this is the fun bit. When you add in the fact that we are we are making a real difference here, well there seems little that can be more worthy.”