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Hillcroft College is providing a supportive environment for women who want a second chance in education through Access to HE Diplomas .

Fans of ITV’s Downton Abbey may recall Lady Rosamund Painswick (played by Samantha Bond) talking to Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) about a national residential college for women in the final series. The plot involved a number of the characters becoming trustees of the college with the aim of encouraging women, from “modest backgrounds” to undertake education.

Established in 1920 and now called Hillcroft College, it is still thriving. For nearly 100 years the College, which is based in Surrey, has been giving women an opportunity to gain an education and improve their lives. It was the first institution in the UK to offer female students a chance to bridge the gap between leaving school with no qualifications and going onto higher education, so they could boost their earning power and status. To this day Hillcroft remains the only exclusively women’s residential college offering Access to Higher Education courses.

 “Our philosophy is that residential learning benefits students and helps them reach their full potential,” says Victoria Murray, Acting Director of Curriculum and Quality. “It’s a bit like being away at university, so we offer similar facilities such as a laundry and kitchen. It’s fair to say our facilities are more akin to a youth hostel than a classy hotel, but the residential element does enable students to concentrate on their studies away from the normal domestic distractions of everyday life.”

The college has 800 students a year of which around 70 per cent are residential, with a small proportion of day students who commute. Because children are often the biggest barrier women face if they want to return to education Hillcroft offers free childcare as well so that children can live in with their mothers in a dedicated parent block.

Pioneers in what became Access courses, the last decade has seen the type of student the College attracts changing. “We’ve found many of our students didn’t feel that their needs were met at school or they didn’t suit that type of learning. Around 60 per cent of had undiagnosed additional learning support needs which hindered them,” says Victoria.

Charly Swahn, 24, from Yeovil in Somerset, is an example of someone who was able to change her life as a result of the Access to HE courses offered at Hillcroft. Leaving school at 16 with few qualifications, she realised that to progress beyond low-paid work she needed to go back into education. How to afford this was a problem. But as the Access to HE Diploma was Charly’s full Level 3 qualification she was entitled to have her tuition fees fully funded by the Skills Funding Agency. She also received a bursary which meant she could live away from home.

Charly managed not only to complete the Access course but to get a distinction. She is now at the University of West England doing a BSc in Mental Health Nursing. “It’s a very intensive course so the Access course at Hillcroft was very good preparation,” she says. “I definitely couldn’t have done it without the Access course at Hillcroft.”

The College has been working with OCN London, which awards its qualifications, for a number of years. As well as OCN London’s Access to HE Diplomas they offer OCN London courses ICT and mentoring.

“We’ve found OCN London to be very good at nurturing us through its process and standards and we get really good support. External verifiers come in a couple of times a year and they support what we do, whilst making suggestions on how we can improve,” says Victoria.

As the number of low-skilled jobs wanes, the demand for this kind of bridging-the-gap education is increasing. Although it’s much easier now for women to go into higher education than it was in the 1920s, Hillcroft still has a unique role to play. It has managed to move with the times and continue to be relevant for women wanting a second chance.

To find out more about Hillcroft College visit the website

Find out more about OCN London Access courses here.