Principal reveals biggest challenges and successes during her time at Oaklands College

The fire at the Discovery Centre at Oaklands College campus in St Albans.

The fire at the Discovery Centre at Oaklands College campus in St Albans. - Credit: Archant

For Zoe Hancock, departing principal of Oaklands College, the biggest challenge she faced during her tenure was unquestionably the massive fire at the Discovery Centre in June 2019, which spread to a nearby gym and resulted in students and staff being evacuated.

Firefighters tackled a large-scale blaze at Oaklands College in St Albans. Picture: Herts Fire and R

Firefighters tackled a large-scale blaze at Oaklands College in St Albans. Picture: Herts Fire and Rescue Service - Credit: Herts Fire and Rescue Service

“I never want to see a fire like that again. However difficult my job was it was never a life or death thing, and suddenly when you’re faced with a fire you want to make sure that everyone is out and everyone’s safe.

Firefighters tackled a large-scale blaze at Oaklands College in St Albans. Picture: Herts Fire and R

Firefighters tackled a large-scale blaze at Oaklands College in St Albans. Picture: Herts Fire and Rescue Service - Credit: Herts Fire and Rescue Service

"It’s something very different, and that’s also been true with the pandemic, where the teachers and staff have done a fantastic job of getting back to work and carrying on with people’s education, but also providing that wrap-around care and support which is fundamental, and knowing we really do need to keep the staff safe and make sure that people aren’t catching the virus because it could be really devastating for them and their families. That’s been a real challenge.”

In contrast, she classes the college’s £62m capital development as one of the great successes of her tenure, the second phase of which is now well underway.

The project has been funded by a 350-home housing development on part of the college site, and aims to provide Oaklands with a sustainable long-term future, with state-of-the-art facilities offering students the best possible learning environment.


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Supported by a £2.5 million Local Growth Fund investment from Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the latest phase will deliver a brand-new teaching block – the Evolution Centre – comprising 49 new classrooms, offices and facilities to house Pathway 4 special needs provision on the Smallford campus.

Zoe is justifiably proud: “I’m really pleased about it all being achieved and fully funded because that will serve the college for the future. It should stand for a long time after I’ve been there.

Oaklands College in St Albans is undergoing a second phase of redevelopment, provided by Wilmott Dix

Oaklands College in St Albans is undergoing a second phase of redevelopment, provided by Wilmott Dixon. Picture: Wilmott Dixon - Credit: Willmott Dixon

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“Planning obviously took a long time, and we had residents who were quite understandably unhappy about the development, which I absolutely get. Having to go and speak to them, which was the right thing to do, was challenging. Trying to get the councillors on board, even my ambition for it and for people to understand what it meant for the college and why it was so important, all of this was an awful lot of work.”

Phase 3 of the project is due to begin this year, and will involve building a new sports pavilion adjacent to the college’s sports pitches to house new changing rooms, hydrotherapy and physiotherapy areas, as well as a new construction teaching centre containing industry-standard workshops for construction students.


The work to Smallford campus is part of a wider £62 million four-phase redevelopment. Picture: Oakla

The work to Smallford campus at Oaklands College, part of a wider £62 million four-phase redevelopment. Picture: Oaklands College - Credit: Oaklands College

Aside from the college redevelopment, Zoe said she is also pleased about the way Oaklands’ culture has changed: “I’ve always been very value-driven and the values at the college mean a great deal. People talk about them, they talk about living them, we celebrate them with awards, and that’s been a really good thing. It’s all about making sure our students succeed to the best of their abilities, but it matters how you do things, not just what you do, so that’s been really important.”

Finally, she wanted to highlight the many joint ventures the college has set up in recent years: “One with the University of Hertfordshire - University Campus St Albans - which is really focused on adults in the workplace achieving degrees, has been phenomenal. Student statisfaction for there is great, the employees love it and people are coming out with firsts and 2:1s.

“Then there’s Together Training with West Herts College, which is all around apprenticeships; we’ve also done some really great stuff with Herts county council in meeting their needs, but also a number of other employers such as Camelot, again just doing something different which didn’t exist in the locality.

“All of our sports academies have really gone from strength to strength, and now obviously we’ve got Arsenal Ladies on site, it’s just fabulous to give people the opportunities to develop their sporting careers at the same time as giving them that educational core in case their dreams don’t happen so they have something to fall back on.”

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