From its close partnership with the dairy industry to the use of its facilities by manufacturers for trial purposes, the needs of the food and drink industry have always been a top priority for the Food Centre at Reaseheath College, says head of commercial for food John Sorsby.
Operating from its 330-hectare site in Cheshire, the Food Centre’s courses include a Level 2 to 5 bakery and patisserie diploma, a Level 3 to 5 food technology and management diploma and a Level 6 BSc in food industry. The jewel in the crown of the college’s courses is its high-level degree apprenticeship, Project Eden, developed to the specifications of the dairy industry.
“This came about in around 2008/9, when the average age in the dairy industry was getting on for about 60-plus,” explains Sorsby.
“There was going to be a huge shortage of dairy specialists – they were due to retire. The industry came to us concerned, saying, ‘look, we’re going to lose this knowledge, so we want to upskill the current workforce’.”
The initial idea was to create a Level 3 course, but the level was too low to replace the skilled workers set to leave the industry, which called for a bespoke foundation degree. And Project Eden was born.
Overseen by an industry group chaired by the manufacturing director of dairy processor Müller, the course is now in its 10th year and sees students “live and breathe” dairy on a 42-week programme over three years.
“If you look at some of the dairy companies that consistently come back to us with new learners or students – the Müllers, the Arlas and Dairy Crests of this world – they are our key market,” Sorsby continues. “We also have others with lower market share who come to us as well.”
As part of its commitment to the food and drink industry, Reaseheath has partnered with other colleges to help provide the food technology training they may otherwise lack in their engineering courses.
As Sorsby explains: “On the Level 3 food and drink engineering and maintenance qualification, there are a lot of colleges out there that can deliver the engineering side, but don’t have the food and drink expertise.
“So, we’re now starting to partner with a number of engineering colleges to deliver that qualification. There’s a big call-out now from the industry to upskill their engineering base.”
The centre has two infeeds of students: school-leavers who are taking their first steps into the world of food and drink; and employees within food and drink companies, who wish to top up their learning.
The appeal of Reaseheath’s bakery courses has resulted in a significant upturn in students in recent years, no doubt due in part to the popularity of TV programme The Great British Bake Off, reckons Sorsby. However, food technology course numbers have dwindled.
Attracting younger people
“We do struggle now on the food technology side and in trying to make the industry attractive for these young people, the 16-year-olds. They like baking, but don’t so much like manufacturing ice cream and butter, for example.
“We’re trying to get the message across to these youngsters that if they go on a night shift in a factory, the pay’s good and the hours are good.”
The college is trying to encourage the next generation of food and drink workers by going into local schools and promoting its courses to potential students through a series of open days and competitions.
Inspired by The Great British Bake Off, Reaseheath developed its own baking competition to ignite a passion for baking among youngsters across north-west England. “We’re getting ready to launch next year’s competition now,” says Sorsby. “We tend to get a lot of families coming through because of the competition.
“Some schools are keen to send their students to Reaseheath, because we are a vocational college and a hands-on provider. At least 50-60% of our courses have a practical base.”
The college has also introduced free transport to and from the campus across the whole of the north west, removing a costly barrier that could have prevented some new students from joining.
Students have the opportunity to work in three industry-standard factories at the Food Centre – a bakery, a dairy and a butchery facility – albeit on a small scale.
Grade A BRC-accredited
What’s unique about all these facilities is that they are all grade A BRC-accredited, allowing the college to sell the goods produced by its students. “The money from anything we sell gets ploughed back into the facilities,” Sorsby explains.
Its close relationship with the food and drink industry means Reaseheath allows companies to use its facilities to develop new products and perform trials.
“A lot of clients come in to do a range of trials on the kit we have, because it’s all food-grade equipment, relevant to industry, predominantly dairy. It creates a real connection to the industry,” says Sorsby. “Wherever possible we get the clients to interact with our students. If there’s an opportunity to get a client involved, we’ll always do that to enhance the student experience.”
What’s more, at least 75% of the college’s lecturers have previously worked within food technology, engineering and/or manufacturing.
The college’s next step is to shake off the misconception that it only offers courses for those looking for a career in dairy. As Sorsby notes, a sign at the front door says it’s a centre for all food education.
“We’re now starting to develop a confectionery course and making that the next sector we start to work with,” he adds.
“We’re starting that dialogue at the moment, developing relationships within the sector and working in combination with the National Skills Academy to develop a new standard for confectionery – as we did for dairy.”
The Food Centre at Reaseheath College
Number of students
Level 2 bakery: 32
Level 3 bakery: 20
Food technology programme: 36
Foundation degree in food manufacturing: 12
Foundation degree in bakery and patisserie: 24
Project Eden: 45
BSc Level 6: 8
Plans for the future
“We’re now looking to move towards blended learning solutions. At the moment, most of our delivery is done here at Reaseheath College, which is great from a practical point of view, but moving forward we’re conscious
that a lot of learners now consume learning in a different way than just being sat in a classroom.
“So we’re looking at different modes of delivery as well, and there’s a project that has just kicked off around that.”