College students and staff share memories of a beloved monarch 

Colleges across the country mark the Queen's passing during week of mourning

Colleges across the country mark the Queen's passing during week of mourning

Feature image: East Surrey College, 2011

Karl Scott, a teacher, was horrified when he accidentally winked at the Queen during her visit to North Hertfordshire College in 2003. After his colleagues’ carefully rehearsed lines became mixed up, he was left without any to say. He managed a nervous “good afternoon your Majesty” and gave her a wink but was kindly consoled when she gave him her hand to put him at ease.

He is among thousands of staff and students remembering the Queen’s warmth on the special occasions when she visited their college during her seventy-year reign.

The Queen’s death last Thursday has been followed by 10 days of national mourning. Colleges and training organisations have conducted two-minute silences in her memory as well as encouraging students to write tributes in condolence books and holding remembrance services.

Many have taken the time to remember her visits to colleges and the close relationship she held with specific institutions.

When royal visits take place it involves the whole college, bringing together expertise and specialisms from across the organisations to make the day a special and memorable occasion.

Teachers remember the careful planning and endless running around to prepare in the months before. Their efforts were always worth it to see the students’ awe-struck faces as they showed the Queen their work and place of study.

Queen Elizabeth receiving flowers at the opening North Hertfordshire Colleges Stevenage site in 2003

At North Hertfordshire College, catering students designed the menu and prepared a three-course meal for the royal visit, while public services students worked closely with the police and the college security team to assist with parking and visitors.

Sally Mitchell, a former member of staff at North Hertfordshire College said: “We were all very excited about the Queen and Prince Philip’s visit, it was a huge privilege for our catering students to be able to cook and serve a meal for them. The food was delicious, too.

“I was warned to eat as quickly as possible because as soon as the Queen finished her meal, the rest of us would need to be finished too – her equerry told me he rarely got to enjoy dessert. One minor faux pas was when a student served the chair of governors first before the Queen, which was hopefully overlooked.”

College experiences with the Queen often involved leading roles for students studying catering, hospitality, performing arts and public services subjects.

During the diamond jubilee in 2012, 300 hospitality and catering students from City College Norwich, College of West Anglia and Great Yarmouth College catered for and served approximately 4,000 guests at a garden party at Sandringham, one of the royal residences.

“I was introduced to the Queen, and she said how good the events were and how well students from the three colleges worked together,” said Emma Seaman, a hospitality student.

Specialist colleges with royal patronages

Throughout her life the Queen held hundreds of patronages with charities and organisations linked to causes that mattered to her, including specialist education.

The Queen visiting the Royal National College for the Blind in 1987

 One of these was the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC), which has had a long-standing relationship with the royal family. Their first patron was Queen Victoria, followed by every king and queen up to the present day.

Queen Elizabeth II visited the college in December 1987. Phil Mayne, the site operations supervisor, who still works at the college, remembers her visit fondly.

“It was a freezing cold day in December when the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visited. At the time I worked for RNC as an electrician, and it was business as usual as myself and the estates team finalised preparations for our royal visitors. The royal couple spent a lot longer than planned at the college as they were so interested in everything that was on display that day. It was a joyous occasion, and I remember everyone being really thrilled by their visit.”

The then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, took over patronage of RNC in 1997.

Ten years before the Queen’s visit, in 1979, Prince Charles arrived by helicopter to visit the college, almost a hundred years to the day after his great-great-grandfather, according to the college archives.

The archives noted that he said: “I have been enormously impressed going round and seeing the students at work and what they must do.  What I always love myself is enthusiasm. I think this shows the great quality of the college; the enthusiasm and motivation on the part of all those who live and work and learn here.”

The Queen was also patron to Portland College and her first visit preceded her accession to the throne.

The Princess Elizabeth laying the foundation stone at Portland College in 1949

In 1949, the then Princess Elizabeth ceremonially laid the foundation stone of the college near Mansfield.

Portland College is a national specialist college and registered care home for people with disabilities and a centre of excellence for autism. In 1974, the Queen became patron of the college and in 1990, she visited again.

Speaking at an awards ceremony, Queen Elizabeth said: “Ever since I laid the foundation stone of this college in 1949, I have taken a special interest in your record of achievement in your field of training for disabled people. Six thousand men and women trained here over the last 40 years can testify to the way in which the college and its staff have looked after them, trained them and launched them on their chosen careers.”

‘What really stood out for me was how knowledgeable she was about vocational education’

A common theme from teachers and students is their appreciation of the Queen’s warmth, engagement and interest in the colleges she visited.

Remembering a visit to East Surrey College in 2011 to open a campus, Jayne Dickinson, the chief executive of Orbital South Colleges Group, said: “What really stood out for me was how engaged the Queen was with our students and how knowledgeable she was about vocational education.”

The Queen spent several hours touring the campus and speaking to students and teachers about their course and ambitions. Some of the students created a mock crime scene that included an outline of a body on the floor and a range of clues. A photograph ended up on the centre page of that weekend’s The Sunday Times, with the caption: ‘It was the corgis what done it, your Majesty’.

Dickinson added: “We were also delighted, and frankly terrified, when we heard that the visit was to include a lunch to take place in our auditorium. Seated next to the Queen for the duration, I recall a surreal conversation with her about Sussex pond pudding, its merits and recipe. This was followed by a brisk walk around more of the college – even in her eighties, the Queen was a very fast walker and keeping up with her was challenging.”

The Queen meeting students at East Surrey College in 2011

Her Majesty’s life-long passion for animals, especially dogs and horses, is well-documented, so a visit to open the animal management centre at Bishop Burton College in 2002 must have been a treat for both parties.

Ann Paling, who was head of the equine and animal management department, said: “The Queen was hugely knowledgeable and incredibly easy to talk to, but very small. I am tall, but she was tiny. We had a great chat about lion dogs and the various college horses. We laughed, as the previous week she had watched a display from 1,000 horses, whereas we only had ten.”

HM The Queen opening Bishop Burton Colleges animal management centre in 2002

Students on parade

Education settings will close on Monday as part of the bank holiday to mark the Queen’s funeral, but normal attendance has been expected throughout the rest of the mourning period.  Kit Malthouse, the education secretary, said the Queen’s devotion to public service “has been an inspiration” with her wisdom and strength providing “solace to her people in times of darkness, most recently during the pandemic”.

He added: “By her grace and dignity, Her Majesty touched the lives of millions, and she will live on in our hearts.” 

Public services students at Northampton College and City of Wolverhampton College have played lead roles in remembrance services at their colleges this week.

More than 500 students at Northampton gathered for a parade through college grounds on Wednesday. In Wolverhampton, a two-minute silence was held yesterday by 70 public services students and attended by other students and staff.

Malcolm Cowgill, the principal of City of Wolverhampton College, said: “As future members of the country’s uniformed public services, the students recognise what an important role they will have to play in ceremonial events. They wanted to give their fellow students and college staff the opportunity to come together and pay tribute to Her Majesty to honour her memory.”

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