Troubled mergers led to financial meltdown at K College last year before Graham Razey emerged as one of two principals to make the brave decision to take on parts of the college. He outlines efforts to ensure his merger was successful.

To collaborate or not to collaborate? I guess that is the question on the minds of many principals and their governing bodies.

Following the FE Commissioner’s report a few weeks ago regarding models of collaboration between FE institutions post 2014, I thought I would share my experiences of creating a new FE college a year ago.

This was achieved through the transfer of the Folkestone and Dover campuses of K College to East Kent College in Broadstairs, where I had been the principal for four years.

The most important factor for me was to ensure there was a compelling case and clear vision as to what could be achieved.

While it was flattering to be offered such an opportunity we had to convince ourselves we could make a success of the venture.

We also needed to ensure everyone involved bought into the vision and appreciated our intentions were creditable. This included staff, governors, stakeholders, the funding agencies and most importantly local people.

It was not until this had been achieved that we started negotiating about the specifics of how and when it would happen.

As you can imagine, the amalgamation was not all plain sailing. The overall success rate at the Dover and Folkestone campuses in the year 2013-14 was a dismal 52 per cent so there was an enormous challenge to significantly improve the situation as quickly as possible.

We used our in house experts in areas such as finance, HR, ICT and MIS to undertake due diligence but didn’t appreciate how much their involvement would impact on the existing business.

Amalgamation was not all plain sailing

This resulted in a few unexpected one-off costs so, in hindsight, while we would still have used our own staff for the due-diligence work we might have provided additional capacity back-filling their day jobs.

Once the Folkestone and Dover campuses became part of East Kent College the first three months were all about creating cultural change.

We needed to ensure the culture was such that everyone understood that a positive student experience was paramount. Making sure students had higher expectations of their experience was critical in raising standards.

It meant senior leaders had to lead by example, listening and acting on the student voice and ensuring we delivered on our promises.

East Kent College now has a full complement of staff that is totally committed to delivering an outstanding student experience. More than that we also have considerably enhanced facilities now available at all the campuses and the curriculum offer has been significantly changed so that it now aligns to the local economies.

The results to date are very encouraging with success rates predicted to show a substantial improvement and the recent FE Choices student satisfaction survey reporting improved results for the merged college, over the original East Kent College.

My advice to anyone considering collaborating with another organisation is to find a partner with similar values as it is easier to work together if you don’t have conflicting ideology.

Whatever the reality, it is easier if you can appear to come together as ‘equals’ rather than one side feeling they have been ‘taken over’. At East Kent College we tried to ensure the three campuses had equal status from day one and Broadstairs was not perceived as the ‘senior’ college.

Each campus has its own senior leader and administrative services are based independently from all the campuses, while the senior management divide their time between all the campuses.

During the past year East Kent College has been well scrutinised by Ofsted and the FE Commissioner and this will happen to any college collaboration initially.

Because we concentrated specifically on what was right for students and the locality we found both Ofsted and the FE Commissioner very helpful (I make this comment in hindsight and not what we thought at the time).

I do feel collaboration is a way forward provided you can engender the right culture, be honest with your students, staff, governors and stakeholders and be prepared to make the difficult decisions for the greater good.