Meet Ken Merry - our new Deputy Principal and Deputy Chief Executive
Ken Merry - our new Deputy Principal and Deputy Chief Executive - is determined to enhance York College & University Centre’s reputation as an institution where dreams can be fulfilled and lives transformed.
The former Vice Principal for Quality at Barnsley College, who started work at Sim Balk Lane this week, has spoken about how he would like the campus to become an environment for “brilliance” where students are regularly walking out of classes “buzzing” having been inspired by their lessons.
Ken has also explained how the fact that he had “never heard a bad word” spoken about the College attracted him to his new role, as did a glowing reference from his cousin – a former York College Graphics and Art student.
The enthusiasm of our staff made an impression on Ken, too, during a visit when he was part of an Ofsted pilot inspection in a previous job before he left for his last role on the Executive Team in Barnsley, having helped the South Yorkshire institution achieve an “Outstanding” Ofsted grade last year.
His intention now is to see York College widely acknowledged as one of “the best in the country”, whilst his motivation for working in education remains the same as when he first started out as an A Level Travel and Tourism teacher “many years ago”.
Having grown up on a Rotherham council estate during the 1990s, Ken admits that youngsters on his street generally ended up “either at a Further Education college or in prison”.
For him, education provided a means of “changing his life” and he continues to be committed to enabling all students - regardless of the GCSE results they might gain this summer - with the opportunities to take the next academic steps that are right for them.
Please find below Ken’s thoughts on all of the above and more after he shared his time with us during his first week on the job...
“I came here as part of an Ofsted pilot inspection and really liked it. The building is lovely and the atrium is really bright, airy and welcoming.
“I spent all day with (Head of Curriculum for Engineering and Digital Technologies) Lisa Wheeler and her enthusiasm for what she was doing in engineering was great and every member of staff I met seemed really enthusiastic about what they were doing. I’ve also never heard a bad word said about the college, which I think is lovely and unusual, because even the best colleges get name called every so often.
“I had a cousin who came here as well to study Graphics and Art. He lived in Selby but came here rather than Selby College and really enjoyed his time here.
“When I was leaving Ofsted, there were seven or eight colleges I’d have considered coming to and York was one. The opportunity to join York College now is one that I could not pass up.
“I’d been at Barnsley long enough to have made the impact I needed to make and, whilst I wasn’t desperate to leave, when this great opportunity came along it was a no-brainer really.”
“I hope I’ll bring strategic leadership to the quality function and support curriculum to develop so it’s effective and focuses on the experience that students get. I want learners to be going home telling their friends and family how wonderful studying here is and we can only do that if we get the curriculum right by teaching them well and making sure we have a range of activities for them to do.
“We shouldn’t just be doing things the same as everybody else - we should be one of the best colleges in the country. I also want to ensure our teachers and professional working staff enjoy being here too and for everybody to think about what they can do as individuals to enhance the student experience.
“For example, can our finance administrators give guest speaker talks to business students or can our catering services in the 1827 Café have students on work experience?”
“It’s going to be a really exciting challenge and journey for me because the College isn’t broken – we just want everything to be brilliant and the first thing we need to do is to find out what’s working and what’s not working and, where necessary, work on how we support teachers to get better. We need to ensure there are more support mechanisms available for teachers who might be struggling but want to improve, and explore how our heads of department and curriculum share the really strong practices of our teaching more broadly across the College.
“Ofsted have a handbook that will tell you what they regard as Outstanding, but we perhaps need to become less focussed on what Ofsted would want us to do and think about what our students want us and need us to do. We will be looking to identify where we are already, where we want to be and how we get there.
“That process will take place between now and the October half-term and then we’ll think about reshaping the curriculum to make sure it’s doing what we need it to do. Part of that might be deciding a lot of what we’ve got stays because it’s working, but we also need conversations about what else we could do.
“I think there’s something quite powerful when you say we’re doing something because… and not because we’ve always done it. It could be because it works for learners or employers and, whilst I imagine we’ll probably keep about 75 per cent of what we do, some bits will be tweaked.
“What we do keep, we will also try to teach and assess differently. We will look at how we can link it more to what employers need and make it more aligned to what learners need.
“We also want to make what we offer here special and unique, so we can talk about what the benefit is of studying here and what the USPs are of our different programmes.”
“People knew that our Ofsted inspection in January was on the horizon because the last one was in 2013 and you can become a little transfixed by that. We no longer have that pressure having been confirmed that we were Good, which was what we thought we were and what was fair, but we want our standards to be higher than that.
“We want to be brilliant, and we don’t need to wait for Ofsted to come and validate that. We just need to be able to say, hand on heart, that if I had friends and family who were going to come to York College & University Centre and study something, then it would be a brilliant experience for them.
“At the moment, I think we’d be really comfortable with them studying in some areas, but less comfortable in others. We need to shift that so everything is at the level we expect it to be at. We don’t have the pressure of Ofsted looming over our shoulder – we won’t be inspected for another five or six years, so we can really try some new things and see what works.
“If we try something and it doesn’t work, so what? I want us to be trying something different, exciting, interesting and new, even if it only confirms that what we’re doing already is better.
“I want students walking out of classes buzzing, because the best lessons are the ones that you still remember a week later. I’d like to be seeing one of those lessons a week or, even, one a day.
“There’s a real opportunity for us to look at digital learning and how teachers can talk less and learners do more because there are a lot of things that emerged during Covid that we can possibly keep, as well as the things we wanted to get rid of straight away.”
“I grew up relatively poor on a council estate and, without getting idealistic or teary-eyed, education changed my life. My ambition, when I was 15, was not to live on a council estate when I was older, and education was a way out of that for me.
“Some kids on my street went to Further Education colleges and I saw that make a difference to their lives as they became tradespeople, mechanics and joiners. People on my street either ended up in college or in prison – sadly it was as simple as that where I grew up in the 1990s in Wath-upon-Dearne in Rotherham.
“My first proper teaching role was at New College Pontefract, where I did two-and-a-half years as an A Level teacher. My motivation for getting into education was to make a difference to people like me growing up and that remains the same.
“It’s the reason why I left Ofsted really because I felt the impact I was able to make in terms of changing people’s lives was waning.”
“For learners who have just taken their GCSEs, we know it’s a really challenging time and there’s a lot of trepidation. I wish everybody good luck with their results and, if they get the ones they want, then brilliant, we’ll have something for you but, for learners who don’t get what they want, we’ll still have something for them.
“We’re a really inclusive college, and we are able to deliver a breadth of subjects and qualifications that anybody could possibly need to get to the next steps that are right for them. We will have something for everybody, whether that’s A Levels, technical, professional or vocational qualifications.
“Then, if the University Centre is the right place for them to pursue their academic career, that would be absolutely great too but, if not, we can also help them get to where they need to be. Some of the greatest success stories I have ever seen are learners who didn’t get the GCSEs they wanted but, then, worked their socks off for three years and left with some wonderful qualifications to take their next steps.
“I have taught Level 1 and 2 students before who have left colleges with degrees and it’s really exciting that education can do that for you. We want to support students to achieve their dreams whatever level they are and whatever pre-existing qualifications they have got.”
“My approach will not be a lift-and-drop of the systems and processes we had at my previous job in Barnsley because the Barnsley College model is unique to Barnsley. However, what is integral at Barnsley that I would like to be the position here too is that they are at the centre of their community.
“They consider themselves an anchor institution and have a relentless focus on transforming lives. That’s kind of their mission statement and that values-driven approach to education, which is already here, is something I want to see us enhance and shout about more in terms of the impact we are making.”