The Blog

Lewisham and Southwark Colleges: Past to present

Lewisham College has been educating people in its local community since 1991, and in its previous incarnation as South East London Technical College, since 1931. From its earliest days, the College has been a centre of excellence for vocational training, with a strong mission to improve the employment prospects of local people while helping to meet the skills gaps of local employers.


The early roots of Lewisham College

The tradition of technical training in south east London dates back for centuries. Deptford, the location of the College’s specialist construction campus today, started as a medieval shipping village which offered technical education as early as the seventeenth century when Peter the Great, among others, learned the craft of shipbuilding in its naval shipyard. Formal education in the borough began in the 1820s when the Deptford Mechanics Institute was founded.

Across London, the roots of technical education started to grow in the mid eighteenth century with the foundation of a Society of Arts which aimed to ‘embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufacturers and extend our commerce’, while also alleviating poverty and securing full employment. In 1815 the first adult schools in London opened, and in 1823, the London Mechanics’ Institutes were formed (of which the Deptford Mechanics Institute was one) to provide adult education – particularly in technical subjects – to working men. The City and Guilds of London Institute was founded in 1878 and the first Technical College, in Finsbury, opened six years later.

With industrialisation and a capital which was developing at a fast pace came a growing need for people trained in the technical trades, and London County Council began to invest heavily in schools for technical training. The South East London Technical Institute was one of these institutions, opening in 1931 with the construction of the Tressillian building which is still a central part of Lewisham College today.



South East London College

South East London College (which was earlier known as South East London Technical College or SELTEC) opened on the current site of Lewisham College in 1931, with 1,497 students enrolled in the first academic year.

The College’s building in Lewisham was designed by Mr G Topham-Forrest, London County Council’s architect, and built at a cost £108,666. The institution was set up by London County Council and was controlled for the next 60 years from London County Hall (first the LCC, then the GLC, and finally ILEA). The College’s first Principal was George Allen Robinson who was previously been head of engineering at Acton Technical College.

SELTEC initially focused on engineering courses, having inherited the engineering provision from Goldsmith’s College, which had recently made the decision to concentrate on the arts and teacher training. The courses offered in SELTEC’s first academic year included mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and building construction, as well as City and Guilds qualifications in Post Office work and telephony. There were also land surveying courses, and craft courses in plumbing, carpentry and joinery, fitting, turning and machining, metal plate work, gas supply and pattern making.

The women’s department of the College offered household cookery, home dressmaking, home millinery, lingerie and embroidery, and physical training.

In the decades that followed, the College began to introduce new courses to meet the changing vocational requirements of south east London, with construction and catering courses introduced in the late 1940s, and business courses in the 1960s. SELTEC also merged with the successor of the Deptford Mechanics Institute, establishing the roots of Lewisham College’s strong presence in Deptford today.

A major merger in 1973 of SELTEC with two colleges of further education, one of which was based in an adjacent building on Lewisham Way, enabled the College to hugely expand its range of vocational and general education courses. By 1974 the College was housed at five main sites in Lewisham, Lower Sydenham, Downham and Catford, and offered courses in engineering, construction, business and administration, secretarial and clerical studies, communications and liberal studies, hotel and catering, and academic studies.

Three years later, to accommodate an increasing range of courses and student numbers, the Breakspears building was constructed, opening in 1977.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the College’s focus changing, moving away from electrical and mechanical engineering (with its engineering HNDs moving to Thames Polytechnic) into other areas. Where the student body was once made up of largely white, male day-release apprentices from large organisations such as British Gas, the student population became far more culturally diverse, and the courses on offer changed to meet the needs of people looking for a job rather than those already in one.

There was a growth of access and A level courses for mature students, an expansion of the College’s business courses, and the launch of dance and drama courses aimed at school leavers. The College also became a sub-contractor to the Manpower Services Commission for youth and adult training and, at the end of the 1980s, secured European Social Fund for some programmes.


1991: The launch of Lewisham College

In 1990, Lewisham Council took over control of the College and renamed it Lewisham College, giving it a more localised focus under its new Principal, Ruth Silver. With high unemployment in the area and a multicultural population including large African, Caribbean, Turkish and Vietnamese communities, the College’s mission of helping local people into employment became more important than ever before.

In the event, Lewisham Council’s control of the College was short-lived: three years later the Conservative government announced that it would incorporate Further Education colleges and take them out of local council control. Lewisham College was therefore incorporated on 1 April 1993 which gave the College independence from local government control but, at the same time, placed it within a more stringent system of national regulation, under the Further Education Funding Council.


1993-1998: Building a beacon College

In the five years that followed, the College underwent a huge transformation under the direction of an unpaid board of governors and its Principal Ruth Silver, who was awarded a CBE in 1998.

The College sold off four buildings in Lewisham which were no longer fit for purpose, and invested £11m in the campus in Deptford which re-opened in September 1996. In terms of its curriculum there was a similar transformation, with new courses, facilities and staff in areas such as computing, the performing arts and creative arts. The College also implemented a systematic review of its courses, upgrading and improving some, and closing others that did not meet quality targets.

During this period, the College became a regional centre of excellence for students with learning difficulties and disabilities, and also built a national reputation for innovation in management and curriculum change.

In the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC)’s 1995 inspection report the College was graded ‘excellent’ – an achievement that was highlighted by the Times Education Supplement as a ‘remarkable testament to change’. The Chair of the FEFC London Region commented: “London has some great FE colleges but Lewisham is the jewel in its crown.”

After an ‘outstanding’ FEFC Inspection report in March 1999, the College was announced as one of 10 beacon colleges by the government.


Since then …

Lewisham College merged with Southwark College in August 2012, with the new institution initially called Lesoco before being rebranded as Lewisham Southwark College in 2014. While the new merged College faced a challenging period during its Lesoco phase, it then entered a new era of success following the introduction of a new management team and a programme of improvement. Reflecting its industry-focused courses, innovative teaching methods and strong partnerships with local businesses, the College was named the 4th best college in London, and top 20 in the UK, in the Department for Education’s National Achievement tables 2016-17.

During this period the College also expanded its range of Higher Education qualifications, including HNDs, Foundation Degrees and Masters level courses, and introduced A levels, broadening its appeal to new groups of learners.

In August 2017, Lewisham Southwark College merged with NCG, one the largest providers of education, training and work-based learning in the UK. As part of NCG, students of the College are able to benefit from access to a world-class network of expert tutors, high-tech facilities and advanced learning methods, while studying at a high quality College rooted in its local community.

In September 2018 the decision was taken to separate Lewisham College and Southwark College once again in order to enable both colleges to tailor their curriculums to meet the needs of local communities more effectively. The sister colleges now operate as two entities under a single governing body.


Lewisham College – a timeline

1925               Headmistresses of Lewisham campaign for a trade school

1925               Day continuation school moves to 210/212 Lewisham High Road

1926               2014-218 Lewisham High Road purchased and plans for new building approved

1931               South East London Technical Institute opens

1934               Trade school for girls opens at South East London Technical Institute

1935               Boys’ junior technical school opens at South East London Technical Institute

1938               Extension of South East London Technical Institute approved

1939               Institute is evacuated due to outbreak of war

1940               Boys’ junior technical school reopens

1940               War production and training commences at Institute

1942               Girls’ junior technical school reopens

1943               Engineering sandwich course and canteen management courses are launched

1945               Boys’ junior technical school in building trades opened

1945               Junior technical schools renamed ‘secondary technical schools’

1948               South East London Technical Institute renamed South East London Technical College

1959               188-208 Lewisham Way purchased for site of new Day College

1963               Official opening of the new Day College

1964               Day Colleges renamed Colleges for Further Education

1974               South East London College formed

1977               Lewisham’s ‘Breakspears’ building opens

1990               South East London College renamed Lewisham College

1996               Deptford campus rebuilt

2014               £41m Southwark campus refurbishment and rebuild

2014-18         Lewisham College becomes part of Lewisham Southwark College

2017               College merges with Newcastle College Group (NCG)

2018               Lewisham College and Southwark College become separate sister colleges


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *