STANDFIRST: As Darlington College appoints a new principal and chief executive, David Gartland reveals how his own early experiences of school shaped his approach to education today and how he strives to harness the power of learning to transform people’s lives
“I was born in Durham and attended a local comprehensive school, where it is fair to say I didn’t achieve my potential.
I didn’t do well at all in my GCSEs and went to the local college where I met a teacher who showed me the value of education and supported me progressing onto and completing my A Levels. He had a real impact on me and that’s what effective teaching can do.
I was told for the first time that I could achieve something and was encouraged to get into teaching, so I read a Bachelor of Education degree in sports science at university.
And that experience of education, someone taking the time and effort to mentor me, has shaped how I approach leading colleges today.
If people say to me that a student isn’t doing well enough or not achieving, I ask, ‘so what are we going to do about that’.
Everyone could have given up on me but I was given a chance. It’s our job to inspire and enthuse and provide care, support and guidance, we should never give up on them. As a college we can help to give them direction and provide opportunities that enable them to thrive. We have to support them through troubled times as everyone faces difficulties at some time in their life. We have to be there when we are needed and be responsive to students’ needs.
After graduating I stayed in London and taught in a South London College, a challenging area but hugely rewarding as I was working with some really talented students. I then moved to Lowestoft, Suffolk, an equally demanding region where I took on the vice principal and then principal position at Lowestoft Sixth Form College.
After working successfully for nearly eight years at Lowestoft, I was approached to build Abbeygate Sixth Form College in Bury Saint Edmunds. Starting from scratch on a greenfield site, during COVID, I worked closely with the design and build team on the layout, designed the curriculum and recruited the right staff. Abbeygate Sixth Form College is now transformed into being one of the most successful colleges in the country.
Wherever I have worked I have always tried to make a positive difference. High quality education and meaningful progression for our students is the most important thing for me, alongside highly effective wrap-around care. If you don’t have the care and support in place for students, when they need it, then they can’t focus on their studies and tutors can’t do their jobs.
I am from this region, so it is really significant for me to come back and work in the area. I am pleased to be working in a college of this size, on a single campus, where everyone knows everyone and they don’t work in silos. This means that we can work really collaboratively for the good of each and every student.
When I walked through the door and went through a really intensive two-day interview process, I was able to instantly pick up the sense of community in the college. That really helped me to make the decision to come here. People were so friendly and welcoming. I could tell they genuinely loved being here and being part of the college community. They have bought into college life and it is clear my new colleagues are proud of what they do and that they do a great job.
Young people today face so many challenges and difficulties but I have met a group of colleagues at Darlington College who work incredibly hard and do everything they can to reduce any barriers preventing students from being successful. The college building is stunning but it’s the people who make the real difference. I see a team of colleagues who go above and beyond for every single learner and that is so important.
I would say to prospective students, if you want to specialise in a subject, come here; if you want to learn real skills, work with industry standard equipment that will help you get a job with real prospects, Darlington College is the place for you.
There are a wide range of different routes into further and higher education, such as high level apprenticeships, T Levels and BTECs. Destinations are so important – where will your qualification actually take you? T-Levels are changing people’s perspectives. Our job is to help people choose the best option for them. At Darlington College students are going to be taught by industry experts, working with industry standard equipment and will be ready to progress to their destination of choice.
The college has established thousands of highly effective partnerships with employers and we are helping to fill the skills gap by providing good quality apprentices, ensuring students are work-ready. We will continue this great work with employers who can help us shape the curriculum so students are getting the skills they need to be ready for work.
Aspirations come from a wide range of influences and are not just something that happens. So, when students come to college, it must be a safe, supportive, aspiring environment that enables them to achieve.
I always believe in developing a culture of high expectations among staff and students, setting challenging but realistic targets for everyone and working in a supportive environment to achieve them.
As a regional college of national acclaim, it is vital to be at the forefront of tackling the skills shortages and making sure the college meets the town’s needs, particularly those of local employers.
We have to make sure our students are doing the right courses, high quality courses, and they are ready to make a positive difference to the society they live in. Our students are part of the local community and we will enable them to make that positive difference. We want our students to take responsibility and we will help them achieve their goals. We have to work collaboratively with local employers and the council and look to bring investment into the area and to train and educate our future workforce.
If our students are learning here with a can-do mentality and if we can help them develop resilience and determination, then we will be doing a good job. Our tutors are modelling the types of behaviour people want to see in our community and the students are developing the right personal skills here at College to ensure they are able to make a positive contribution to the work-place.
It was quite a week when I visited Darlington College. Ofsted arrived to inspect my college, which I’m pleased to say went incredibly well, I was offered the job at Darlington College and Newcastle United secured a place in the champions league. It is certainly a week I won’t forget in a long time.
I am driven by the desire to make a difference through education. I was inspired by my own college experience, realising just how transformational great teaching could be and what a difference it can make to peoples’ life chances. Watching a young person learn new skills, develop new knowledge and progress to a meaningful destination, regardless of their starting point, is the best feeling in the world.
For more information on opportunities at Darlington College visit www.darlington.ac.uk.