Commissioner — ‘college cannot operate on own’

Norton Radstock College has been told it can no longer operate on its own after FE Commissioner Dr David Collins identified issues with leadership, governance and college finances.

The 4,700-learner college, near Bath, was graded inadequate by Ofsted in May and has posted a deficit every year for the last three years.

In a newly-released report on his visit in June, Dr Collins called for changes in leadership and governance and said the college needed to operate “within a larger partnership” if it was to meet the needs of learners. It prompted Skills Minister Nick Boles to place the college into administered status, which means it will lose its spending powers and the ability to hire and fire staff.

In his report, Dr Collins said the college lacked direction and was “drifting,” and added that management and governance roles were “blurred and overlapping”.

He said: “The capacity, capability and accountabilities within the senior team are not meeting the needs of the college. The senior team does not review progress around teaching and learning with sufficient rigour or regularity.

“Too many staff at all levels seem comfortable with the college being seen predominantly as a caring institution for those learners who cannot travel elsewhere. Senior staff are quick to blame poor performance on the college’s approach to inclusivity.”

It is the third time Dr Collins has questioned the future viability of a college as an independent organisation in his 11 inspection reports to date. He made similar comments following visits to Bicton College and Stratford-upon-Avon College earlier in the year.

But hope for Stratford has been restored after Dr Collins gave positive feedback after a follow-up visit, having originally questioned the “long-term viability of the college as an independent institution” after his first visit in May.

He said: “I’m really pleased on my recent monitoring visit at the college on how much progress has been made through the hard work of staff and the new governing body. The college has not only improved on quality, but is well on the way to resolving its financial difficulties. There is still a lot of work to do but it’s great to be able to report on a success story.”

However, Dr Collins concluded that although Norton Radstock had done a lot in the past to develop “an inclusive and caring environment, especially for vulnerable learners”, he said financial pressures and its failure to improve the quality of its provision had left it in a weak position.

He said: “As one of the smallest colleges in the sector it needs to build on its strengths within a larger partnership to ensure that it can continue to meet the needs of learners in the area.”

He also urged to college to extend the repayment of a bridging loan owed to a bank, and said it should bring forward talks about the sale of some of its land.

In a letter to college chair Chris Dando, Mr Boles said: “Changes, particularly within the leadership, should be made as a matter of priority.”

Principal Shirley Arayan said: “Over the past few years small colleges such as Norton Radstock College have found it increasingly difficult to meet sustained reductions in funding and college governors are committed to ensuring the needs of our communities continue to be met.

“Leaders and governors have been working hard to address the issues identified in the Ofsted report whilst taking responsibility for the future of the college. Our focus has been on providing the stability required to serve our current students whilst developing strategies for the future.”