Colleges Week 2021 – My FE Journey to Principal of Carlisle College

As we reach the end of Colleges Week 2021, Carlisle College Principal Sarah McGrath shares her personal journey to Principal, her experience in the role and what FE means to her.

My passion for FE starts with my own story. I chose the FE route. I was academically strong at school and my teachers expected me to go to sixth form and do A levels. However, my interest and passions were more in the creative field and I decided from an early age that I was going to work in fashion. I got a sewing machine for my 8th birthday (which I still have) and my focus didn’t change throughout school. My aim was to study a BTEC in fashion and textiles and I worked hard to secure a place at the college I chose. College was an amazing experience for me, I learnt so much and really developed as a person. The remarkable links with industry helped me to secure a fantastic work placement with a designer in London.

In particular, I remember one tutor who inspired me massively whilst I was at college. It wasn’t until years later, reflecting on the experience, that I realised how broadly she had inspired me and how she helped me to develop an ethos and the behaviours that have helped me in my development and career ever since. Things like professionalism, seeing something through to the end, dogged determination and a belief that I could achieve whatever I put my mind to.

I went on to study fashion at university but, unfortunately, had to return home after an accident. During my recovery period I reflected a lot on my future and direction and began doing voluntary work with vulnerable young people at a local college. This quickly led on to delivering sessions and before long I was enrolled on teacher training.

Fast forward 20 years and earlier this year, after a period as Assistant Principal, I was appointed as Principal at Carlisle, my dream job despite being rather a long way from the fashion shows and openings I had once thought would litter my future!

Like anyone starting a new position I was at least in part daunted by the task ahead. Despite knowing the team, the college and the students so well after all these years, being in the top job is a uniquely challenging and personal situation.

I knew I was taking on the leadership of a brilliant institution with more than its share of successes under its belt. Carlisle College recently announced some of the best End-Point-Assessment results in the country for construction and one of our students was recently announced as a UK finalist in the latest World Skills Competition. There is a lot to live up to.

Here I have been incredibly fortunate to be part of the NCG family. Like so many colleagues I have been able to draw on experience and expertise, not least through our group wide Communities of Practice, which help to facilitate knowledge sharing and contact building between people in colleges at different ends of the country. Being part of this wider group has been invaluable, and I know that even when I have been in the job for many years, the supportive and informal relationship with my peers will still be a massive asset to me and therefore to colleagues and, of course, our students. I know that other people at all levels and disciplines within the college also benefit from interactions with colleagues across NCG.

In addition to a supportive clan within the college and group, I’ve been blessed in the partners we have within our local community here in Carlisle. Partnership working is a real strength locally and it is a key part of the college’s identity and its ability to really serve the local community.

After the two years we have all endured, there are many things we would rather forget, but also many things we will hold on to. In FE, as elsewhere in the public services, I think the community of support both within and outside our colleges has been put to the test and passed with flying colours. For me, it’s definitely one of the things we must seek to retain, grow and cherish as we move forward and, as we reflect on all that we have seen in Colleges Week 2021, what helps make FE and our colleges truly special.