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Industry partnerships flourish at Reaseheath College as Gail Hunt finds out

Commanding operations in Bosnia; owning a dairy and arable farm; and running a successful retail business for 10 years aren't skills you'd normally associate with an academic.

But that is exactly what you get when you talk to Chris Edwards, section manager for food, business, IT, foundation studies and adult and community learning at Reaseheath College in Nantwich, Cheshire. Edwards farmed the family land before selling up and running a retail business. At the same time, he became an officer in the Territorial Army, which involved being mobilised to Bosnia in charge of 100-plus soldiers in 2003.

In fact, academia's gain is the crisp sector's loss as he only ended up at Reaseheath when PepsiCo rejected his application to sell crisps because he had no formal qualifications. This rejection was the catalyst to Edwards first studying at Reaseheath, then lecturing, before eventually heading up the food team.

He is a passionate man. Passionate about getting bums on seats and passionate about how he can personally get more people turned on to the food industry as a must-join business for young people. "There are over 170,000 kids doing GCSE food courses but less than 1% of them go on to a degree course, which is a shocking state of affairs," he says.

"At Reaseheath, we put together various open days for schools to come into the college and try to get these pupils turned on to food," he says. Last September, for instance, 14 year olds from schools throughout the south Cheshire area were among the first in the country to start a two year Young Apprenticeship in Food and Drink Manufacturing, developed by Improve, the food and drink sector skills council.

"Students on the scheme spent the first six months learning about practical aspects of working in a manufacturing environment, including essential health and safety knowledge, before employers became involved this year," explains Terry Fennell, learning and frameworks manager at Improve.

Edwards says his biggest worry for the industry going forward is the lack of young learners coming into the business. "If we don't start training our food technologists of tomorrow, where will we be?" he asks.

Reaseheath is a Centre of Vocational Excellence in Food Chain Technology and offers full and part-time courses as well as being one of the best equipped, pilot-scale food factories in the country. The qualifications on offer cover a range of levels, from a Foundation Degree Food Industry with Management course, to NVQs in the workplace.

There is also a large apprenticeship scheme for 16-24 year olds. This involves four days a week in the workplace and one in college with students on the way to earning NVQ level 2 in Food and Drink Manufacturing or Advanced Apprenticeships, which are NVQ level 3.

One strategy that Edwards has just initiated to try to help students who come from outside the north west area is the 'blended learning route'. "This is not distance learning but a more flexible way for people to learn," he says. "Students have access to tutors at all times and only come into college for intensive two-to-three day, bite-size chunks of learning."

Pilot production facilities

Students at Reaseheath benefit from its extensive range of kit, says trials and product development manager Damien Murphy. "One of our unique selling points is the sheer size and scale of equipment, which is focused mainly on the dairy sector.

"Food companies do not want to stop production to conduct small product trials, while some smaller-scale operations do not have the money or equipment to test new things out themselves," he adds. "Our growing reputation as a service provider to industry has resulted in some exciting new partnerships."

One such project involved the initial trials on a cholesterol lowering milk drink, now on sale through Tesco stores. Fayrefield Foods used Reaseheath's pilot plant to help develop the product which incorporates a cholesterol-lowering ingredient called Reducol.

Dairy ingredients provider Dairygold Ingredients UK used the college facilities and the expertise of its product development team while developing its new Ezycheese product. The company ran pilot-scale trials before scaling up to full commercial production. Ezycheese is a liquid form of natural cheese designed to replace grated cheese in a wide variety of savoury ready meals and snacks.

In addition, Reaseheath offers training services, which have been taken up by yoghurt manufacturer Müller. The scheme was designed to support an apprenticeship recruitment drive at the Market Drayton production site. Staff from the college outlined training opportunities available to apprentices in the food and drink sector at a special open evening. Now, Müller's advanced apprentices receive training at Reaseheath on one day a week.

This service is available to other employers engaged in an apprenticeship scheme, including the bakery and meat industries.

The processing hall at Reaseheath represents a big growth area for the college and a lot of former students bring new product development work back to the college, says Murphy. And investment is set to continue as work has already begun on an £18M scheme to develop the site. Principal Meredydd David says: "Reaseheath is recognised as one of the top specialist colleges in England so it is right that our learners benefit from facilities of an even higher standard than they enjoy at present."

This investment comes on the back of a glowing Ofsted report that described Reaseheath as offering an outstanding range of courses and qualifications, backed by superb student support, inspirational leadership and effective management.

The development of the college as a whole is all good news for the food department, though Edwards is keen to stress that Reaseheath is mainly about application, not research.

"We need to influence teachers and kids to get them into food technology," he says. "Don't they know food offers fantastic global opportunities?" he asks.

You get the feeling that they will do if he has anything to do with it. After all, his background does represent a farm to fork perspective. FM

Norfolk excels in Poultry training

In 1997 Edward Bales launched a training business for the poultry industry based on his experience as a free-range poultry producer. Today, Poultec Training supports a number of UK poultry companies and, through the Learning and Skills Council, became a Centre of Vocational Excellence (CoVE) in partnership with Otley College last year.

Called Food IMPACT (Improving Management Practices and Core Technology), the project is based around a new Food Centre of Excellence. This is housed in a new building at Poultec's South Green Park in Mattishall, which offers full facilities to support the food and drink sector.

To achieve full CoVE status, Poultec had to hit various standards and specific targets in relation to numbers of learners trained, especially those at NVQ level 3. The company also had to demonstrate that the project had been successful with its employer, learner and school engagement programme.

The Norfolk Food Centre of Excellence includes a training area for food hygiene, quality assurance and product development. It also offers an IT communication and technology suite, a healthy eating and retail area, a butchery training suite and a food science laboratory.

"When designing the facilities, we talked to the food sector so it would reflect employers' demands in terms of training requirements and industry support," says regional network manager Jonathan Whitbread.

To maintain the relevance of the centre to industry now and in the future, IMPACT has a steering group which is made up of representatives from industry and the supporting public sector bodies.

The butchery area gives learners the opportunity to be trained using the latest equipment and to produce products which can be packaged and labelled. Many products can also be worked on in the product development area, allowing companies to experiment and bring a product to market. The food science laboratory is designed to add value and a practical aspect to training courses such as food hygiene, allowing learners to see bacterial development and swabbing/sampling techniques.

Nathan Raines, CoVE manager at Poultec, says: "The food sector is one the region's most important industries and to maintain and build on this success we are aiming this fantastic new centre not only at businesses, but also at schools."

The centre launched officially this month and is looking for partners that either want their products displayed at CoVE, or used by trainees.

Related topics: People & Skills

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