Meet ‘the good news girl’

Alison Andreas is the Principal at Colchester Institute.

Alison Andreas is the Principal at Colchester Institute. - Credit: Su Anderson

If you ask Alison Andreas, principal and chief executive of Colchester Institute, what she likes best about her work, she’ll smile and tell you it’s all about the people. When you walk around the campuses at Colchester, Clacton and Braintree, you realise she means it.

Staff greet her with affection, as do many of the students, and they’re all on first name terms. Not bad when you consider that, since her appointment in April, Alison is managing 800 staff and 12,000 students.

Ever since she eschewed using her French degree from Oxford University in favour of a graduate traineeship at United Biscuits, it’s always been about the people, their abilities, their aspirations and how to help them realise their potential.

Was a role in education her destiny? (Her mother had been a teacher.) No, it was love, in the shape of Costa, her future husband, and also a United Biscuits employee.

They met at a conference but Costa was living in Colchester while Alison had moved to Scotland to recruit and train office staff at a new factory. After six months the office was running efficiently. She was also commuting at weekends to Colchester to see Costa and, when they got engaged, she decided to find work that didn’t involve a 950-mile round trip.

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In 1991, she became the training officer at a factory in Haughley Park, Suffolk, which made recipe dishes for M&S. She also married Costa. To ensure she was delivering the best training, Alison enrolled on a teacher training course at Suffolk College. For four years she carried on gaining more qualifications, alongside her day job. You get the strong sense she’s a bit of a trouper, but when you know she also had breast cancer in 1993 and still carried on working and studying, “trouper” seems a rather lame description.

Her move to Colchester Institute is thanks to Costa. “He’d taken voluntary redundancy from United Biscuits and decided to retrain as a fitness instructor at the Colchester campus. As I got to know more about the college, the concept of ‘changing lives’ really excited me; when the vacancy for its very first training and HR manager was announced, I had to go for it.” It was 1997, she’d just had her first child, Anna, and she got the job.

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Moving to the public sector was a bit of a culture shock. “Things moved very slowly and you didn’t always feel that everyone was pulling in the same direction.” Over 16 years she worked with every department, having five months’ maternity leave when she had son Marcus and taking on greater responsibilities when she could. In 2008 she became director of quality and operations East and a member of the senior management team.

Colchester Institute, built in 1952, was in need of extension and refurbishment and, when it was successful in bidding for an £83million fund from the Learning and Skills Council’s Building Colleges for the Future programme, everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. “The diggers rolled in, new buildings went up and others were demolished. Then we got a phone call telling us to stop all the work because the funding was cancelled. We’d already spent £40million. We could only recoup £12.5million from the Government, which left us with a massive debt of over £27million and a campus that looked like a building site.”

Thanks to financial acuity and general belt-tightening the college met the challenge. But what about the buildings, some of which were no longer fit for purpose? The college secured £10million in Government grants, and contributed £3million of its own, to complete the first stages of a new development and give Colchester Institute the £13million facelift it deserves. During 2014/15 students will see a brand new reception area and eight new classrooms; by September 2015 a new four-storey teaching block will be ready.

She says that “for me the real challenge is helping 12,000 students be the best they can be. I love the knowledge that through our work we have the potential – and the privilege – to be able to change lives for the better”. Alison believes it’s too easy to forget how much is achieved, so she’s become the “good news girl” and sends out a fortnightly bulletin to remind staff and governors how amazing they and their students are.

Her working day starts at 7am and generally finishes around 7pm.

Away from work, it’s family time. The two-week summer holiday is when she can relax. What does she do? She buys a travel guide and goes exploring. “I want to be prepared; I want to know everything so that I don’t miss an opportunity. The world is such an interesting place.”

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