The learning curve

It’s been a steady learning curve, in more ways than one, for Chesterfield College and its team of dedicated staff in recent years. Site redevelopment, emerging partnerships and an ever growing pool of eager learners, which includes not one but two gold medal Skill Auto competition winners amongst its ranks, has seen the college evolve into a highly respected centre of learning. bodyshop’s editor, Mark Hadaway, paid the college a visit to find out more.

On my arrival at Chesterfield College, I inadvertently enter the main reception rather than head straight to the automotive centre (my fault, useless at following instructions). However, what greets me, aside from some rather smiley faces at reception, is a display of some stunning examples of what skill, guidance and creative flair can achieve with a bonnet, some paint and a spraygun. I’m clearly in the right place. It turns out the bonnets are the work of one of the college’s Skill Auto candidates for 2015, whilst the other two belong to the highly talented Jordan Salt, an ex-pupil and now lecturer in vehicle refinishing at the college. It’s a great portrayal of what has been achieved.

Hosts for my visit are Paul Sewell, lecturer vehicle body repair and Peter Jepson, lecturer vehicle refinishing – two characters who exude enthusiasm for development of young people within the industry. ‘Colleges in general have suffered a bit of a reputation crisis in recent times within the sector,’ said Paul. ‘But we have come a long way here at Chesterfield College to rectify that. Most people who come through the door now are very impressed with what they see, yet there are those out there that still don’t know about us – and that’s the challenge.’


As well as students from a number of local, lower profile operations, amongst the college’s partnerships it lists links with multi-vehicle manufacturer approved, Advance Accident Repair Centre, prestige repairer Chartwell (Derby) Ltd and Just Car Clinics (JCC) – an organisation close to Paul’s heart. ‘This is only my second ever job,’ explained Paul. ‘I spent the first 15 years of my working life with JCC and hold the company in very high regard. It’s a relationship I am keen to continue to develop for the future.’

Offering the full remit of education and training for apprenticeships from level one through to level three, the college acts as a conduit between individuals and organisations, working hard to secure work placements and experience for those without employment. ‘One of our major roles is to manage expectations,’ said Peter. ‘There is a big difference between qualified and skilled, and our job is to ensure that is understood by both employer and employee. That’s not to detract anything from the status of any apprentice but more so to ensure they are utilised effectively and continue to be developed.’


Two protégés of the Chesterfield College system include Skill Auto 2014 Autorefinish gold medal winner, Blake Robey of Chartwell (Derby) Ltd and Skill Auto 2013 Autorefinish gold medal victor James Grayson of S&G Coachworks Chesterfield. They are two of approximately 10 students the college has encouraged and supported to take part in the competition. ‘We have been involved with the Skill Auto competitions for several years and think it is an incredible environment for youngsters to be exposed to,’ said Paul who along with Peter now acts a judge for the competitions. ‘It gives students the confidence, experience and passion for the industry that is hard to attain anywhere else. On a personal note, it also gives us the opportunity to develop our network and the exposure for the college.’

The IMI accredited centre boasts three separate workshops, one specifically set aside for entry level learners (pre-16s) and level one apprentice students, the other two split by body and paint disciplines. Within the level one centre is what Paul calls ‘the wall of fame’ which is home to the student’s front wing panels which they take all the way through the year. ‘Level one takes them up to primer stage,’ explained Paul, ‘but we will always tempt them by encouraging them to fully finish them. Some do, some don’t – there is no obligation on anyone’s part and we want them to be confident and comfortable with their development. One of our most important roles is develop skills for life, not always for trade.’


Interestingly, Peter reveals that when it comes to choosing which discipline – panel or paint – at the end of year one, it falls hugely in the favour of paint. ‘It’s possibly due to the fact the students experience paint spraying in year one, whereas ‘hands-on’ panel skills is a little harder to provide exposure to.’ To counter this however, one thing the college has initiated is getting students to fabricate mini doors from plans, covering many skill elements fundamental to the repair of vehicles today. It also provides students with what Peter labels a ‘tangible asset’.

Another noteworthy fact is provided by Phil Faulkner, lecturer pre-16s whose job is to provide his pupils with an insight into all elements of automotive skills. ‘We typically find most that come to us are predisposed towards a mechanical career path, yet in 2014 the majority actually went on to study body and paint,’ explained Phil. ‘I think it shows a changing attitude amongst youngsters, possible influenced by movies such as Fast and Furious.’ Whatever the reason, it can only be a positive sign for the college and the industry as a whole.


Despite having come so far, the team at Chesterfield College still appreciate there is plenty to be done in order to develop further. ‘Something we currently do is host open days and evenings to showcase what the college has to offer’, said Paul. ‘We really want to develop this and broaden our reach so we can start those conversations with employees and develop programmes to suit. If we can be successful in achieving that, then further money can be invested back in the college and so the loop continues.’

It’s certainly not all plain sailing as a college trying to ensure the skills that you provide students with are relevant and up to the minute in a rapidly evolving industry. ‘Computer systems, modern vehicle materials and methodologies and other technologies are all challenges we need to ensure we get up to speed with,’ said Paul. ‘These are areas we are really keen to see if we can develop – not just for us as a college but for education centres throughout the UK.’ It’s a very valid point and one I’m sure, with a bit of joined up thinking, could be addressed wisely.


One element to the college which really stands out is its gratitude towards its team, its partners, its supporters and its students – new and old. A ‘Where are they now’ board appears in both the panel and paint workshops, adorned with pictures and commentary of students from years gone by – it’s a great touch and quite aspiring to see the heights that some have gone on to achieve.

‘The list of thanks goes on forever,’ said Paul who has a great appreciation for ex-head of department at the college, Dave Walker for how he ‘helped change people’s ethos, ideas and mindset at the college in order to get funding for new equipment.’ And having achieved so much in the five years since he has been with the college, Paul and the team look set to continue on a highly successful path towards helping create the future of the industry – an effort, I say, we should all be very grateful for and supportive of.

Special mentions

3M, Auto supplies Chesterfield, Car-O-Liner, DeVilbiss, Farecla, IMI, Lechler, Mirka, Morelli, Upol, SATA, Stanners