My Experience Working at Coleg y Cymoedd: A College Passionate about Biodiversity

We’re a college that’s passionate about working and educating sustainably: for the environment, and for our learners’ future success.

In the last year, we have announced:

  • That we are the first FE college to create a senior leadership role dedicated to sustainability;
  • our membership with leading sustainable development organisation, Cynnal Cymru;
  • and that we were changing our default search engine to Ecosia, to plant a tree every time our staff and students search the internet.

This World Earth Week, we’ve asked Deputy Estates Manager, Freya Powell, to share some of our ecological goals across our four campuses: Aberdare, Nantgarw, Rhondda and Ystrad Mynach.

Tell us about being the Deputy Estates Manager for Coleg y Cymoedd

My job is to ensure the smooth running of all four campus estates. This includes the buildings, grounds, and services within them. A big part of this is to consider what Coleg y Cymoedd can do to ensure we’re as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible.

What is your favourite part of the job?

I love change and implementing new ways of working. This includes improving what we do on the estate. As sustainability, net zero, and the need to protect our environment became more apparent, we found ourselves managing the estate very differently.

We continue to improve and implement ideas to boost the college’s biodiversity and ecology, and seeing what we’ve achieved so far is such a rewarding part of the job.

What guidelines do you follow when it comes to implementing these new biodiversity strategies? 

The college has an Environmental Management System (EMS) which considers and records all college operations and activities.

Within the EMS, we take on board all environmental legislation and include legislation that is currently in consultation and on the horizon. 

We have to take into account all college staff, students, visitors and suppliers, services and goods when managing the EMS and the information within it.

Can you name a couple of initiatives that the college is currently taking part in?

Yes – we’ve got quite a few initiatives that make up the Estates Team’s daily duties to promote biodiversity.

For instance, we’ve signed up to the ‘Plantlife’ initiative, a charity that aims to make lasting positive change for wildflowers, plants and fungi. Through Plantlife, my team has taken courses including ‘Wildflower Meadows’ and ‘Bug Life’, so that we can protect and restore our wild plants, and connect people with nature on college grounds.

We have just completed the C Block extension at our Ystrad Mynach Campus. To ensure that we undertook the building process sustainably, we signed up for validation and certification from the world’s leading science-based systems for sustainably built environments, BREEAM. As part of our BREEAM accreditation, we created an on-campus lagoon to encourage local wildlife. 

The college also retained a piece of land adjacent to the old campus at Aberdare for ecological purposes. We have an ‘Ecology Mitigation Plan’ to keep the land’s abundance of butterflies happy. This year, we have a goal to improve this piece of land, and hope to work with the students on small ecology projects to retain the habitat.

Oh, and on our Rhondda campus, we’re about to embark in extensive tree management of our trees that sit on the estate’s boundary. This will be carefully planned and carried out in conjunction with our tree service contractor. Once completed, we’ll see how we can utilise the boundary trees to place bird boxes and bug housing to increase the wildlife (especially the bird and bug) population. We hope to utilise the free tree planting programme from the Wildlife Trust to help us replenish our boundary tree stock. 

Do you have different approaches to biodiversity across the campuses?

All four campuses are very different geographically and in size and location. We have to take these factors into account when considering the best ways to boost biodiversity and ecology.

So, Aberdare has a strip of land in front of the building where specific flora and fauna were planted to encourage bugs and wildlife. We have to adhere to the special processes that are in place to manage this piece of land regarding grass cutting and replanting to ensure we maintain the purpose of the area.

And Ystrad Mynach is a haven for wildlife: hedgehogs, foxes, Green Woodpeckers, bats and squirrels amongst many more. We sensitively maintain these grounds so as not to impact the existing wildlife. Going forward, we will be looking at how we can encourage more. We’re going to review things such as our weed control processes, tree management, and how we can assist in housing our wildlife. Again, we would like the curriculum to get involved in this. We also have our green roof area tucked away among the cluster of buildings and the bees seem to love it.

Nantgarw has a whole different approach due to its urban location and lack of ‘green space’, but, luckily, there’s always opportunities to improve biodiversity. We previously set up a Green Roof to house beehives but had to rehome them during the major structural works that we’re currently undertaking. We continue to look for new, innovative ways to introduce a wildlife focus, and are really excited by the prospect of reintroducing the bees in future.

Aside from that you’ve already mentioned, going forward, what ecological incentives would you like to see at Coleg y Cymoedd?

I would love to see an annual student competition where they can pitch their ideas and bid for college money for a project relating to sustainability. I think this would be competitive but popular and would give students the opportunity to see their project through from start to finish. This completely ties in with who we are as a sustainability-focused college.

How can learners and staff contribute towards the overall goal to increase the college’s biodiversity? 

We are really lucky to have a host of keen staff and students already who manage our ‘Market Garden/Green Space Areas’, but we need more help from staff and students to improve our biodiversity across all campuses. Going forward, we aim to work more closely with the curriculum to involve students and implement their biodiversity ideas. I’m sure there’s some great ideas out there that we haven’t even thought of!

Caerphilly mum who was inspired by cancer journey to become a nurse wins national award

A mother of two from Caerphilly has won an award in recognition of her bravery and dedication to her studies after returning to college as a mature learner with Coleg y Cymoedd while battling cancer and acting as the main carer for her disabled son.

Emma Hughes, 36, from Blackwood, has received the ‘outstanding commitment to study’ award at this year’s Agored Cymru Access to Higher Education Learner of the Year awards. The awards celebrate the achievements of individuals who have completed Access to Higher Education diplomas – qualifications which prepare people without traditional qualifications to study at university.

Diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer at 32, which resulted in a double mastectomy and having her ovaries removed, Emma was inspired by the support she received from the NHS to pursue a career within the health service.

As the mother of a child with severe learning disabilities, her experience also got her thinking about what her situation would be like for someone with complex needs, motivating her to want to work in the ‘Disability Nursing’ field, so that she could offer support to others based on her own personal insights.

Having left school at 16 without any qualifications, Emma needed to go back to education before she could consider a new career. She joined Coleg y Cymoedd in 2020 to study an initial Access Level 2 course in ‘Skills for Further Study,’ followed by an ‘Access to Higher Education Healthcare’ diploma over the course of two years, which enabled her to go on to university.

Emma, who is now in her first year studying Disability Nursing at the University of South Wales, said: “While I was going through all my medical procedures, I imagined how difficult it would be for people with disabilities, like my son, who is nonverbal, to go through something like that. The reality is that people with such issues tend to have less favorable outcomes when it comes to illnesses due to the communication barriers they face”.

“Many lack the cognitive ability to recognise and communicate that they are feeling unwell, leading to a delayed diagnosis. At the same time, the behaviours they can display can make treatment challenging. Chemotherapy is an ordeal for anyone, let alone for someone who lacks the understanding of what is happening. Knowing first-hand how difficult it would be for my child made me determined to become a Learning Disability Nurse myself, so that I could help.”

Having previously spent over 15 years working part time at a call centre, going back to college in her thirties was nerve racking. Emma worried about how she would balance her studies with her preventative cancer treatments and her caring responsibilities – something that had previously stopped her from changing careers years before.

To make this possible, Coleg y Cymoedd offered her flexible learning, allowing her to study and catch up on lessons online and working to assignment deadlines around her hospital appointments and caring role.

Emma added: “I did worry that not having GCSEs would mean that a career in healthcare would never be an option for me and I didn’t know Access to HE courses were available, but they’ve been life changing for me. After just two years in college, I’ve gone from having zero qualifications to having a diploma with 39 distinctions and a place at university – somewhere I never thought I’d go.  I would recommend anyone else who is thinking about doing an access course to just do it!

“I just completed my first placement as a Learning Disability Nurse and loved it. I can’t believe I’m working towards my dream career and have to pinch myself sometimes. I feel like I have a lot to offer the industry from my personal experiences and can’t wait to get stuck in. Winning an award now is the icing on the cake and it’s nice to see others saying that I’m an inspiration.”

Following her success at the Agored Cymru awards, Emma has now been put forward for the national ‘Keith Fletcher’ award where she will compete against other winners from across the UK. The award is given to an Access to HE student who have shown the most dedication to their course.

Tanya Gordon, Emma’s tutor at Coleg y Cymoedd, said: “Emma’s story is so inspiring, and she is so deserving of the award she has received. She’s worked so hard over the last year and it is truly impressive how she’s gone through so much and remained so positive throughout.”

“We are so pleased that we could help Emma on her journey to her dream career – her progress has been nothing short of amazing and we know she will be a huge success in her new role!”

Anyone interested in finding out more about Access to Higher Education courses at Coleg y Cymoedd can visit:

Welsh college creates senior sustainability role to support environmental drive

A college in the South Wales valleys has become the first in the country to create a dedicated sustainability role as part of a wider strategy to improve its green credentials.

Coleg yCymoedd, which serves learners across the boroughs of Rhondda and Caerphilly, has appointed Rachel Edmonds-Naish as its new Assistant Principal for Sustainable Futures – the first senior leadership position of this type in a Welsh further education college.

The unique job will see her implement a range of initiatives and policies designed to reduce the college’s carbon footprint and support learners to make more responsible and sustainable choices.

Rachel joins Coleg y Cymoedd following more than a decade of experience working in FE education, starting off as a lecturer at Coleg Gwent before moving into management roles and a Head of Curriculum for STEM position at Bridgend College.

With a strong interest in the green agenda, and decarbonisation of the built environment in particular, Rachel co-chairs the Net Zero Wales Skills Economies Advisory Forum where she supports stakeholder engagement for the Welsh Government’s Net Zero Skills Action Plan.

Her new role will see her focus on two key areas of sustainability – providing carbon literacy learning to staff and students to support them to live and work in environmentally friendly ways, and secondly, ensuring learners leave college equipped with the transferable skills and a sustainable mindset that employers are looking for alongside qualifications.

Rachel Edmonds-Naish said: “I’m really excited to take on this new challenge at Coleg y Cymoedd. I’ve long been passionate about the green agenda and decarbonisation so I’m looking forward to taking on a position where I can help to support these areas.

“We are currently working on a detailed action plan to supercharge the college’s sustainability including implementing environmental initiatives and changes to the curriculum that will help educate learners and staff, and lead to behavioural changes.

“We know that having an awareness of sustainability is also very important to many of the employers and partners that we work with.”

Rachel’s appointment comes as part of a wider sustainability drive at Coleg y Cymoedd which has included a move to adopt Ecosia – a green eco-friendly browser – as the default search engine usedby learners and staff on computers across all campuses.

Coleg y Cymoedd is the only FE college in Wales to have made the switchand it is now calling on other education providers to follow suit.

Speaking about the change, Rachel added: “With over 9,000 staff and learners at Coleg y Cymoedd, small changes have the potential to make a huge difference in tackling climate change.

“Setting Ecosia as the default search engine at the college is a simple change – one that costs nothing but one that will have a real impact for the environment. It’s an easy, everyday action that can get learners thinking about the effects of their actions on a day-to-day basis while helping to make a positive difference for the planet.”

Looking ahead, Rachel is working to create a sustainability agenda and implement a range of policies designed to get learners to think about how they use resources and behave on a day to day to basis, inspiring them to make more responsible and sustainable choices.

The college has also just become a member of Cynnal Cymru, an organisation which provides advice, training and connections to businesses and public sector organisations to help them turn sustainability aims into action. As a member, Coleg y Cymoedd will have access to specialist support from an expert team including a sustainability health check and review of its environmental policies, guidance on how to start an environmental management system as well as introductions to key contacts.

Crowds gather at Cardiff’s National Museum as Coleg y Cymoedd’s exhibition, The Living Canvas, is a hit

On Sunday, 26th March, members of the public lined the halls of the National Museum to experience the cleverly conceived ‘The Living Canvas’ exhibition, where learners in the final year of Coleg y Cymoedd’s Costume Construction degree brought the portraits that adorned the gallery walls to life.

For the second time since 2020, the National Museum invited the students to present costume creations that they had interpreted from historical paintings in their collection.

Months of research and detailed design culminated in the exquisite showcase envisaged by the Costume Construction Award Leaders, Caroline Thomas and Emma Embling. Models dressed in the students’ replica costumes staged tableaux in front of their famous portrait counterpart, offering a truly immersive experience for gallerygoers.

The students engaged in a dialogue about their work, which was followed by a costume parade and ‘best in show’ competition judged by esteemed Costume Designer, Ray Holman, of Doctor Who and the BBC.

Speaking of the success of the day, Caroline Thomas, said: “Without exception, each student produced a show-stopping interpretation of their painting for an individual model. Thorough research and investigation into the appropriate cut, construction and fabrics informed their decision making and demonstrated the highest level of skills. 

The students conducted themselves confidently and professionally. They interacted with the public throughout the day and spoke with such knowledge about the beautiful costumes they had created.

It was a truly inspiring and much celebrated day bringing art to life in Cardiff!”

Spectators took to social media to share reviews such as ‘wonderful’ and ‘mind-blogging’. This was accompanied by a video compilation of the event which garnered viral attention from users who remarked on the ‘great idea’ for the project and the students’ ‘stunning work’. To date, views have entered the tens-of-thousands on Instagram alone.

Cecilia De Menezes, one of the six students participating in the showcase commented on how it was their favourite project of the course so far: “From the pattern making stage right up to the event at the National Museum, Cardiff, it has been really engaging and fun.

The event itself was an incredible experience and a massive learning opportunity. Even though it was a little scary to stand up in front of everyone and talk about my costume, the support I got from the staff at the museum as well as my course tutors and class mates was really uplifting.”

Victoria Herbert added: “Yes, the project was one of my favourites to date, too. I am proud of my costume and my model was wonderful through the entire event. Everyone in our class is so supportive of one another – I couldn’t have asked for a better team to work with.”

Winner of the exhibition’s ‘Best in Show’, Ivy Hible, commented: “I loved the research part of this module, getting to examine extant garments at the St. Fagan’s Museum in Cardiff was really exciting. Each garment had its own story, and it was useful to see the way the clothing of my painting’s period was constructed.

I’m really passionate about historical costume and I hope to specialise in this when I graduate, either through stage or screen. It was wonderful to have my interpretation selected as the winner. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the encouragement of my tutors, Emma and Caz, they’ve both been really supportive and helped to build my confidence throughout my time on the course.”

The BA (Hons) in Costume Construction at Coleg y Cymoedd is a three-year course awarded by the University of South Wales. Students study both historical and contemporary costume, and develop specialist skills such as pattern cutting, costume construction and surface embellishment.

To find out more about BA (Hons) in Costume Construction at Coleg y Cymoedd, visit:


Wellington Street
Rhondda Cynon Taff
CF44 8EN


Heol y Coleg
Parc Nantgarw
CF15 7QY


Rhondda Cynon Taff
CF40 2TQ

Ystrad Mynach

Twyn Road
Ystrad Mynach
CF82 7XR

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