Last week I attended the AGM of Hillcroft College. Just another boring meeting? Not for me.
I’ve been connected to the college since I went there as a student in 1976. It was my chance to open a door to getting the degree that had been my ambition since I left school at 16 and went to work doing the milkmen’s books at a local dairy. My family needed me to earn, rather than be a hole in its pocket.
Anyway, some 18 years later, with two children and an estranged husband, I got a place at the college, which was just around the corner from where we lived. And six quite difficult years after that, I had my upper second BA.
Hillcroft is known as the second chance for women in education. Lumped in with the government’s further education sector, it is one of the long-term residential colleges, the only one just for women.
For me, it did much more than educate. When I lost my husband, my confidence took quite a knock. At college, I discovered that I still had value in the eyes of other people, and I soon recognised the fellowship of women. Because I had to care for my children, I’d had to take one of the few day places, so didn’t experience the full camaraderie of the evenings and weekends. But I made friends that I still see today, although we are well scattered.
When I moved on from Hillcroft, I couldn’t break the ties. I joined the Old Hillcrofters’ Association, was elected onto its committee, and went on to become secretary. After it evolved into the Friends of Hillcroft, I took my turn as chair. We held annual weekend reunions in the college building.
The college has an idyllic setting, unlikely as that may seem for a location just behind Surbiton station in South West London. The main building is a listed Victorian mansion that used to belong the Bryant Match family. It is set in spacious grounds next to a small nature reserve, and gets visits from a resident fox and other wildlife. It’s like a peaceful oasis in suburbia and a perfect haven in which to learn.
I was a governor and trustee for many years, culminating in two years as Chair of Council. During that time I learnt of the difficulties of maintaining a listed building, keeping it suitable for all types of students and making the improvements necessary to keep up with legislation, while fighting for a share of the FE cash pot.
When it became clear that we had to expand, and might have to move, I almost said, only over my dead body, but I actually said, “I hope it’s not in my time.”
At the meeting last week, together with other College Members, I was shown architects’ impressions of a very sympathetic new development on site, alongside the old house. It should be completed in time for a relaunch in 2010, the year of the college’s centenary.