OFN has been interested in Hillcroft since the then Principal came to talk to us in 2001. In 2003 and 2007 we were offered the use of the College facilities for two-weekend residentials, creating our own programme.
Over a hundred years ago, Hillcroft was created as “a working women’s college, to provide working-class women with a year of study and leisure, to broaden their horizons and improve society through their influence once they returned to their communities”.
The college was and is housed in a large late Victorian house built by the Bryant & May family, in spacious grounds near Surbiton station in south London. It has continued to provide women-only courses for women who have missed out on some of their education, in many cases preparing them for work and for access to higher education and degrees. Many of the women are mothers, and the College provides some residential accommodation and a creche.
In 2017 we learned that Hillcroft was merging with Richmond Adult Community College, to form the Richmond & Hillcroft Adult Community College and Irena and I met the current Principal, Gabrielle Flint, who assured us that the Hillcroft campus would continue its special provision for women.
For some time, it has been clear that the Victorian house is unsuitable, particularly for disabled students, with its narrow corridors and high staircases, and plans have been put forward to the local authority for the house to be returned to and sold for housing and a new purpose designed college to be built on the site. We were invited to visit and view the plans, which I did recently. Gabrielle Flint explained to me that most students live 3-5 miles from Hillcroft and prefer to live at home with their families, so the residential block will be demolished. The large site will be roughly divided into two, with the house and a small new housing block on one side and the new college building and creche on the other, with plenty of garden space on both sides. They hope to get planning permission to start in 2023.
The new college, on two floors, will have a large art room and drama room on the ground floor, with access to the garden. Fulfilling its purpose as a community college, local groups will be allowed to use the drama room, and local residents of flats will be allowed to come in at any time and sit in the garden. The new one-storey creche will have its own enclosed garden space.
I wanted to know about the continuation of the special provision for women at Hillcroft. Some of the students have learning difficulties, and a few men, mostly with learning difficulties, now join the classes where, Gabrielle said, “they don’t dominate because of their own lack of confidence”.
Women-only classes are still provided as needed, and additional learning support inside and outside the classroom. 75% of all the students of Richmond & Hillcroft are women. Many at Hillcroft are refugees, including several Ukrainians, so there are ESOL classes with a gradual introduction to the area. Financial help with travel, equipment, course materials and meals is given, as well as help with the cost of nursery places for women whose children are not on site with them and help for any student who needs to board locally at any particular time. Hillcroft has played a special part in OFN history and in mine.