Retiring principal with Newham College always in her heart

Newham College principal Di Gowland will retire at the end of August after twenty years of service.

Newham College principal Di Gowland will retire at the end of August after twenty years of service. - Credit: Michael Cockerham

A principal who is leaving a college she helped turn around has said it will remain in her heart always.

Di Gowland steps down from her role at the end of August after three years at the helm of Newham College.

But Di’s connection with the High Street South college goes back 20 years after she first became a member of staff in 1997.

Working on projects linked to the regeneration of east London, Di left in 2010 to become vice-principal of Westminster Kingsway College.

“I had an ambition to be a principal, but I realised I didn’t have the full skill set. I didn’t really know enough about core business,” Di said.

As a vice-principal Di learnt much, but the appeal of being a principal grew too strong.

“The post at Newham College became vacant. Having had Newham embedded in my heart I thought I would try.

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“I was absolutely delighted to secure the job,” she said. “It helped me return to Newham, which is where I really wanted to be.”

Drawn by the area’s liveliness and diversity, Di - married to retired film-maker Tony Nicholls with a 23-year-old son George - was unfazed by the borough’s challenges.

“People talk about challenges, but what we feel is everyone works together to meet them.”

While praising her students’ energy and enthusiasm, Di, 62, said: “They’ve got their whole futures ahead of them. Our job is to make sure we’re helping them.”

After her own school years, Di went to York University before going into social work.

“My school was really encouraging. Everyone was encouraged no matter what their abilities.

“That really stayed with me,” she said.

“The thing I’m most proud of at the college is our inclusivity. So often people can feel excluded. We try to strip away the barriers. Inclusivity is a vital part of the college.”

On her return the college was experiencing a turbulent time financially.

Di said: “Our quality had slipped. The staff were a bit demotivated. What I’ve been trying to do is turn that around.

“Staff can run out of steam if they aren’t taken care of. The staff are vital,” she said.

Now in good financial health, Newham College just missed out on being rated outstanding in its 2016 Ofsted inspection, but challenges remain with a government led apprenticeship scheme directing funding away from the college and towards employers.

Paying tribute to the college’s leadership team, governors and staff, Di said: “We’ve worked together to drive the business forward and make sure students are at the heart of this.”

Looking back, Di now takes pleasure from seeing the college thrive.

“The college is in a great place. We’re stable and that’s great,” she said.

“Further education is a challenging business. The government is always bringing in new initiatives. In the last five years we’ve lost 20 per cent of our budget. But everyone has worked to make sure the college is stable.”

And in reference to a £2m Newham Council loan to ease the college’s cashflow when Di first arrived, she said: “The mayor and his team have been a great support.”

With retirement around the corner, Di plans to walk the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire and the Pembrokeshire coastal path as well as setting up a college alumni.

The Elvis fan - who celebrated Ofsted’s rating with a summer party which included a surprise impersonator organised by college staff - also plans to go on a road trip down the US west coast.

But not before an emotional farewell to her colleagues.

“It will be incredibly emotional. It will be very, very hard to leave, but I will always have Newham College in my heart,” she said.