Thursday, 30 April 2020

A College for Life

When I opened The MTA back in 2009 I knew from the outset that I wanted to run a college that would be there for its graduates even at the end of the course.

When I left college (back in the year when dinosaurs roamed the earth), I felt that I'd literally been thrown off a cliff. For sure they'd given me a backpack full of 'tools', and for all I knew they might have packed a parachute too, but they never had the foresight to let me know so I was just left in freefall for a little while.

Now in fairness times were different then, and my course rather bizarrely used to proudly say that they weren't training professionals and they weren't training teachers. . . but then never did tell us what they were training us for? However I got to create music and theatre all day, every day for 3 years, so I didn't care.

However, on leaving I do remember that feeling of being lost out in an industry that seemingly everybody else had a road map for (or would that be sat nav nowadays?) 

Obviously, training is massively different now, and I intended to open a college with a clear end game - to get performers out into the industry. The business side of our profession was going to be 'taught' alongside the jazz hands. I was adamant that 'my' students would know what was in their tool kit and how to use all the different tools. However, I also wanted to be very clear that I had packed a parachute. Hence the college for life policy.

Being a small college I wanted my graduates to know that the door was always open to them. Not just in a 'pop in and have a chat' way but in a very real, practical way. Rehearsal space is expensive, so I could give them that, dance classes are expensive, so they could come back and join in with ours, even prepping a song for an audition is expensive, so we could help them with that. Most importantly of all though, I wanted them to have the same level of pastoral care and mental health support available to them after graduating as they had received at college.

The MTA takes a whole school approach to mental health, we have 2 members of staff on call 24/7/365 (on of which is a mental health clinician) so it made sense for our graduates to have continued use of that resource? After all, if they had already accessed that support whilst training they would have a shorthand to access the same level of support once they'd graduated.  As our entire pastoral policy is a clinician based system it allowed them to jump back into talking therapies etc as and when they needed it. I've never understood the idea of sessions with a counsellor being time-limited anyway. How awful to start talking to someone, open up that can of worms, only to be told that your 6 sessions are up. Your counselling and/or therapy surely needs to last for as long as you need it?

In a poorly researched blog about The MTA last year I read somebody state that this was an unrealistic vision. They stated that we were a business not a 'community outreach programme' (I might be paraphrasing somewhat, but that was the general gist of the article). Yet my vision of the sort of college that I wanted to open extended way beyond the 2-year model that I had devised. I felt that looking after the graduates was a core belief that we had to achieve.  It's an interesting take isn't it to call an institution out for genuinely trying to help? Yet to me it was always a no brainer. 

We don't really start learning until we're out on the job, yet we all need somewhere to go and ask those questions that couldn't have possibly been known about on the course (as each job and each company will pose their own questions). Very often it's after college that all the self-doubt starts setting in. Prior to opening The MTA I had been told that 95% of graduates drop out of the industry within 5 years, and I completely understood that, as every day is a chore at the beginning isn't it (unless you're lucky enough to walk straight into a nice contract)?
I didn't want my lot paying all the money to train with us, but then change careers before they'd given it their best shot. I just wanted them to earn their fees back really.  However in order to help them to achieve that I felt that 'we' should be the parachute. Actually more than that - I felt that we were obliged to be their parachute.

Inherent in the vision for The MTA from the outset was ongoing support. 

As the years moved on our #college4life tag has become something of an in-joke to myself and the students, as it truly is more than just a social media hashtag. It's a lived reality if you chose for it to be so.  It's also helped to create an amazingly vibrant community outside of the day to day college. Our graduates are known to the current students (in reality all their pictures are up on the walls, so they are very present at all times). Lots of them come back at various intervals to take part in classes. It can be a successful reboot if that's what you feel like you need. Or maybe you've just missed a weekly sing-song, so you can nip into the whole college choral class and get those endorphins racing around again. 

Since 2012 our graduation has evolved into a thing called a Gradunion. A mixture of a celebration for the new graduates entering the industry, combined with a reunion for those that have gone before. Last year's 10th anniversary Gradunion was particularly glorious, with nearly half of our graduates returning to celebrate both the arrival of the new lot and the college milestone. 

The raft of well-meaning support projects to support the #coronagrads has really wound me up this year. Not because of all the things that are going on, as each and every project is brilliant and being supported by so many generous people and organisations. However, those students have paid money to institutions to fundamentally get them to the finishing line. To kick start their careers, to enable them to graduate. I obviously understand that these are unprecedented times, after all, there is barely a moment in the day where somebody doesn't use that very word BUT it is up to all businesses to adapt and fulfil our obligations (both contractual and moral) as best as we can. It is not up to the kind hearts in our industry to take up the slack.  

Whilst every day at the moment we're seeing colleges come up with really inventive ways to enable them to showcase their students albeit virtually right now, we're also seeing a lot of colleges and universities not bothering. Literally graduates online begging for help. Where's the colleges' contractual obligation in all of this?

We all need a 'parachute' when we leave training, and in truth, I fundamentally believe that your fees should pay for it (although I know that this is a rather unique thought). However as a bare minimum, we need to ensure that our graduates have a back pack full of tools that will equip them in our industry - they shouldn't be on social media trying to work things out. 

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