Riviera People – Laurence Frewin, Life at the College

Posted by: on Apr 5, 2020 | No Comments

Riviera People – Laurence Frewin, Life at the College

South Devon College was originally founded in 1931. After a period in the doldrums, it has become one of the most successful Further Education Colleges in England.
Anita Newcombe dropped by for a chat with its ambitious new Principal & CEO.

I’ve arrived at the smart campus at Vantage Point in Paignton that was opened in 2006. South Devon College has been providing Further Education for the best part of 90 years and has offered Higher Education courses for nearly 40 years.  I park up in a reserved space and head to reception to pick up my security pass, before being escorted to Laurence Frewin’s office. Luckily I have nothing to fear from being sent to the Principal today (wasn’t always the case!).

Laurence Frewin took over the helm from Stephen Criddle, who retired around six months ago, but he has been working at the college since 2010. In that time, he’s seen the building of the University Centre, the SW Energy Centre and the Hi-Tech & Digital Centre take place. Chatting in his office at Vantage Point he tells me, “We are really proud of what we have achieved over the years – twenty years ago this was a failing college in financial difficulties and it’s really thriving now.”

And it’s clear that it really is thriving. On my brief walk through the building today, I am aware of a great buzz, a sense of purpose, with lots going on. It’s no easy thing to work here. 10,000 students a year arrive, attracted by the vast array of courses on offer as well as the support promised by a passionate and talented team dedicated to helping students to achieve their potential. Laurence says, “That’s the bit I love.”

Now I want to know what background Laurence had to prepare him for the rigours of this post and how he has been so successful in attracting investment and creating effective partnership working programmes. He tells me, “When I started I was Vice Principal Corporate Services and was responsible for everything that was not teaching, including: funding, finance, estate management and people.”

Laurence’s father had been in the Met Police but the family moved near to Uffculme in Mid-Devon when he was 16 years old. He joined NatWest at the age of 18 on an accelerated management development programme (a bit like an apprenticeship). He gained valuable commercial skills and successfully rose through the ranks. However, something was missing. He tells me, “I loved the job but I definitely wanted something more meaningful.”

While still at NatWest he met Victoria at Rotaract (a junior version of Rotary) in Cullompton. They later got married in Kentisbeare and initially lived in Exeter, where Victoria worked as a secretary. Over the years they’ve had three children: Isaac who is now 23, Scarlet who is now 21 and Lily who is now 17.

Laurence first got involved with schools via NatWest, becoming a school governor and also working with the Prince’s Trust as a mentor supporting Head Teachers. It was at this point that he realised that his financial and commercial knowledge as well as his people skills put him in an excellent position to help schools. He explains,

“It was a great moment when I realised that my skills were transferable – I really didn’t want to die a bank manager – I wanted to make a difference.”

He started his move into the education sector as Schools Business Manager for Bristol City Council, working as a team of three supporting nine primary schools and gaining valuable experience. Next, he took up a post as Business Manager for a secondary school in Bristol, which had serious financial difficulties and a new Head Teacher. Laurence reshaped its support services and applied some rigour around its building project management, finally leaving the school, after three years, with some nice surpluses. It felt good to do such rewarding work.

Over the last ten years, Laurence has put his skills and experience to good use at South Devon College and loves to involve the community in his plans. He tells me, “I’m a great believer in working in partnership. Here at the college we have to find ways to generate a surplus so that we have cash to invest for the benefit of students today and in to the future.”

With all the successful developments that have been taking place, and many more still in the pipeline, it is clear that this strategy has been paying dividends. But it’s all about the people. Laurence tells me that the college’s success has been the result of great teamwork with an amazing board of governors, a very strong leadership team and a fantastic team of committed and passionate teaching and support staff who always put the students first. He makes it clear that it’s not just the most senior members of the team but colleagues at all levels that have come up with great ideas and been instrumental at moving them forward.

The college also regularly talks to employers about what they need. Laurence thinks it’s important to have a clear idea of what world-class facilities look like and what those “disrupting the market” look like (in other words, those creating powerful new ideas that really change the way things are done). Laurence explains, “We can’t be complacent – when you do things well there’s a risk that you stop getting better.”

The college is exceptionally important to the local community with £32 million a year going back into the economy. Of this, 65% is on staffing and jobs that maintain the buildings, facilities and resources. With so many people involved, it’s a vibrant centre of activity for the area and inspires the lives of a huge number of local people. Laurence says, “In the last ten years I’ve seen the culture of the college going from strength to strength.”

Whilst South Devon College offers a huge range of academic and practical courses and degrees, it also has a strong focus on behaviours – professional and personal competences including emotional intelligence. Laurence says, “We are looking at a holistic approach to learning. Students need the right level of maths and English as well as an understanding of their role as citizens of the world and how they’ll be expected to behave in a professional environment.”

Nowadays students have very high expectations of their learning provider and so the quality of teaching and skills must be correspondingly high. South Devon College’s approach means that its students are extremely well prepared for the world of work and can thrive in a happy and positive environment. I’ve seen the positive vibe myself; it’s there every time I visit – it just bubbles out of the place.

Outside college, Laurence enjoys amateur theatre, volunteering for bar duty at TOADs Theatre Company and also doing some acting. He has enjoyed playing a range of comedy roles but also recently played James Highwood in Rough Justice, which was much more serious and challenging. He and his family also love eating out – favourite places include: Brixham’s The Curious Kitchen, Berry’s Head’s The Guardhouse Café and Dartington’s The Green Table.

Laurence has fairly recently taken up running. It helps with his energy levels and clears his thoughts. At the age of 52, he’s now running 4 or 5 days a week during evenings and weekends and tells me that he feels healthier and fitter than ever. He completed the Exeter Half Marathon in less than two hours last October and felt “chuffed to bits” by this impressive achievement. He’s also recently completed the Cockington Caper and the Brixham Santa Run. I ask Laurence if he’s doing the popular Torbay Half Marathon on 21 June. It doesn’t take much persuading before he decides, “Yes – I’ll definitely commit to that – sounds like one I should be doing.”

You may miss him in the large crowd at the Torbay Half but rest assured that he will be there, no doubt flying the flag for South Devon College!