Westminster Kingsway battles the staffing crisis through hospitality education

01 February 2022 by

Westminster Kingsway College weathered the Covid storm, losing funding, students and even its in-house restaurants, but its leadership team is resolute that the school will keep training its students and battle the staffing crisis.

The weight of hospitality history is almost tangible in the Victoria Centre in Vincent Square, SW1, which houses Westminster Kingsway College's School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality.

It's more than a century since a consultative committee, which included Sir Isidore Salmon, Auguste Escoffier and César Ritz, set themselves the task of developing training programmes to meet the staffing needs of London's burgeoning hotel and restaurant sector. There's a direct line from those beginnings in 1910, via thousands of chefs and front of house staff who have graduated from the school, including Jamie Oliver, Ainsley Harriott and Sophie Wright to name but a few. So, how much does this history and tradition drive the current complement of students?

"In most rooms, they're surrounded by it," says Paul Jervis, head of school, referring to the many displays and photographs that spotlight the development of the curriculum over the past 111 years, as well as celebrating the achievements of past alumni.

"It's the story of what this place is all about, and once they've heard it, parents, in particular, don't want their son or daughter to go anywhere else. They're sold on us by the history."

As for the students, while they appreciate the tradition, "perhaps in terms of the opportunities we offer, because they haven't experienced anywhere else, they almost take it for granted," says Jervis.

Curriculum challenges

Despite its pedigree, Westminster Kingsway is as much a part of the educational system, with all the challenges that entails, as any other college – something that deputy executive principal Gary Hunter, who oversees the Hospitality School, is keen to emphasise.

"Because we're Westminster Kingsway, with the reputation we have, there's a perception that we're somehow funded differently than other colleges. I can categorically state that's rubbish. We get the same funding through the Department for Education and other funding streams."

That means that the money follows the students and, like many colleges, the pandemic has increased the complexity of the financial juggling act for Westminster Kingsway. While the Hospitality School received a record number of applications for 16- to 19-year-old places for its September 2020 intake, and issued more offers than usual as a result, in the end the school found itself with one fewer class of 16 students.

Jervis says: "When you follow up with those who didn't take up places, they'd decided to stay at school and do A-levels. Parents are an influence, and they were looking at the hospitality closedown and encouraging their children to stay at school on the basis they could always pick up hospitality training later."

Covid restrictions have also had an inevitable impact on the way the course is delivered. "The biggest challenge was the closure of our restaurants," says Jervis. The main Vincent Rooms restaurant and fine dining Escoffier Restaurant, as well as the bar, were affected by the lockdown regime.

"We've always taught above and beyond the qualification, and in some respects that was taken away from us. We did some really great teaching online, but the reality is that it's a skills-based course," he adds. Hunter says: "Face-to-face social interaction is what students have lacked. They lack it between themselves, with the customers, with suppliers and with the head chef or waiter. Learning to take orders and to be effective in a team role are the pieces that were missing from the jigsaw puzzle of what we teach, so it's now about piecing that puzzle back together quickly and effectively."

Students' study skills are also impacted. The switch from exams to teacher assessment in schools has had a knock-on effect on students' ability to undertake and complete coursework to the required standard, which in turn requires more emphasis on study skills from the college's teaching team, competing with time spent in the kitchen.

The nature of the course appeals to those with a more practical than academic leaning. "They love being in the kitchen, less so in the classroom," says Jervis. "That's always been the case, but it's more palpable at the moment."

Hunter also makes the point that the school's expectation levels are very high. "The students work in the kitchens, restaurant and front-of-house areas every day. Their days are longer, and they are on their feet for longer periods than they're used to. It's tough for them and you get the odd whinge, but ultimately, they come through. We're going above and beyond the qualification to meet the needs of the industry."

The students are also encouraged to work part-time during their studies, although this is balanced against the core demands of the course, as well as a wide catchment which means some students have long commutes to and from the college.

Jervis says: "Students are encouraged to work part-time, but it's certainly not enforced – it should be for the experience rather than to make ends meet. If they're working too much, we tell them to scale back, and if they're working because it's a financial necessity, we look at what we can do to support them."

The college is very aware of occasional criticism that courses don't equip students with the skills needed for working in a professional kitchen. Hunter and Jervis point to the wide range of industry partnerships and sponsorships in place, with all those who get involved having the opportunity to input into the curriculum.

"We can't do it without them," says Jervis. "The qualification is essentially our funding stream, it's what keeps people in jobs. There's no point in us teaching things that aren't being done in industry."

He adds that any experienced chef criticising the current crop of entrants into the industry will have themselves benefited from training and mentorship at the start of their careers and might want to repay that. "If that's genuinely how they feel, be part of the change. Ultimately, that's the cycle."

Keeping the skills in-house

While the closure of the college's restaurants during lockdown was a challenge in educational terms, it also meant taking a financial hit. Jervis says: "Our biggest challenge is that funding has basically been frozen, and we all know that other costs, such as food, have not."

The income from the restaurants plays an important part in keeping the course viable, as well as in the education of the students. "Somebody who doesn't understand hospitality might look at our restaurant and think they could fit in six classrooms, and fill each with 30 kids bringing in funding – but that would be the death of the hospitality courses."

One way the school maximises its food budget is by prepping all the produce itself. "If I buy a whole chicken for the price of two pre-prepped chicken breasts, I've also got two chicken legs that someone else will get a lesson out of," says Jervis. He also makes the point that this in-house butchery and prep, as well as other added-value areas such as in-house fish and meat smoking, give the students valuable experience that "they just won't get anywhere else".

The established programme of competitions for student chefs was also affected by Covid. "Competitions offer something unique, whether it's in small groups or as an individual," says Jervis. "Even with our realistic work environment here, our staffing levels don't represent the reality in industry, and that's where competition pushes people."

The college policy is that only those students with good attendance, punctuality and up to date course work will be considered – "it's an opportunity, not a right" – and the aim is to compete against colleges with similarly high skill levels, as "I don't see the value of them going into a competition where they're just going to excel."

Competing has resource implications, but "every student is an ambassador for the course and the college. The team buy into the competition framework, and there needs to be that support. Of course, we want to win, but for me it's what the learner gets out of it. When you don't do something right, that's sometimes when you learn the most."

The Hospitality School has many long-established partnerships with suppliers and continues to build new ones. Evidence of this focus is in the annual lunch for suppliers and business partners, where attendance has grown from 30 to 170 over recent years.

Jervis says: "We invite them to bring others along to the lunch. It's not until you see this place that you truly understand it. That's when people want to be involved."

One example cited by Hunter is the partnership with coffee supplier Mozzo, which has provided the college with £40,000 worth of equipment, as well as helping to develop a barista training syllabus. "All our first years develop these skills, which means they can work in a coffee shop while they're here studying."

Chocolatier Callebaut is another long-term supporter, providing the equipment for the college's Chocolate Lab, as well as regular skills training sessions. "So many suppliers don't just provide products, but also make a commitment to educate."

Safe spaces

The mental health of those working in the hospitality sector has moved to the forefront of discussion over recent years. As well as dealing with the impact of the pandemic on students, Westminster Kingsway has embraced the need to support the whole sector.

Hunter is a trustee of the PM Trust, which supports young people coming into the hospitality industry, and in a show of practical support, in September 2021 the PM Café opened at the college. Staffed by students, but also manned by trained counsellors, the café offers hospitality workers access to information on welfare issues, as well as a safe space to talk to someone who can help.

"When we were talking to Hospitality Action, it became apparent that coming out of the pandemic there were a lot of issues with mental health and a lack of support within the industry," says Hunter.

"Hospitality employees needed a place to go, away from their workplace, sometimes away from their workmates, to be able to sit down and talk through whatever is troubling them in a professional way." Beyond this, "we work hand in glove with the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, the Craft Guild of Chefs and the Institute of Hospitality, among other associations, to the point where members of our team sit on their educational committees, to help advise them how they can support industry education in general."

Finding the funds

The Hospitality Sectorial Strategy Group is one of a number of industry groups recently set up by the Capital City College Group, which includes Westminster Kingsway. The group aims to "listen to, and act on employer and stakeholder feedback, and ensure we always have the best facilities for our learners and our teachers to deliver high quality education," says Hunter.

This fits into a wider strategy to try and address the shortfall in further education funding. A decade-long standstill in government funding effectively represents an underfunding of 23% to 25%, says Hunter. "If we want to make a big difference and become world leading in vocational training, we need to bridge that gap, and then be another 4% – 10% funded on top of that.

"We need to bring additional funds into the group, and that's our big push as the Capital City College Group in the next five years. We have to start talking to serious investors who believe in us as a further education college group."

In the meantime, says Jervis, "we won't allow a drop in standards. The team here would not put up with it." So, how does that weight of history feel to those currently charged with the stewardship of Westminster Kingsway? Hunter makes the point that Iwan Kriens, the first head of the Hospitality and Hotel School at Westminster Technical College, and his original team "look down on me every day" from a photo in his office, and their example influences the drive for continued excellence. "We'll always try to build the team, to make it better, to build in new skill sets that benefit our students, and to look at new ways of working alongside the industry."

The aim, sums up Hunter, is that "our students can walk out being proud to be Westminster Kingsway College students, proud to be part of the industry, can hit the kitchen or front-of-house running, and will make a big difference right from the word go."

Continue reading

You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.

Already subscribed?

The Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email

Start the working day with The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign Up and manage your preferences below

Check mark icon
Thank you

You have successfully signed up for the Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email and will hear from us soon!

Jacobs Media is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

The highest official awards for UK businesses since being established by royal warrant in 1965. Read more.


Ad Blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an adblocker and – although we support freedom of choice – we would like to ask you to enable ads on our site. They are an important revenue source which supports free access of our website's content, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

trade tracker pixel tracking