FE Week investigates: The National Extension College is ‘reborn’

Little more than a month ago, thousands of students faced uncertainty after the owners of a distance-learning institution plunged into administration.

Saddled with a pension liability and rapidly reducing income, the Learning and Skills Network (LSN) announced its demise in early November.

It left the administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), with the task of finding buyers for LSN’s five businesses, including the National Extension College (NEC), which supports 20,000 students nationwide on home study courses.

Fast-forward six weeks and the NEC has a new owner in the Open School Trust (OST) – a consortium which includes former employees and trustees who were involved with the NEC prior to its merger with the LSN in 2010.

But the familiarities do not end there, as both share the same founder – Lord Young of Dartington, who set up OST 1989 and the NEC in 1963.

As such, the OST, which has been dormant since 2003 but kept its charity status and is now headed by former NEC director Dr Ros Morpeth, has promised to retain the name and “values and missions of the reborn college”.

Speaking to FE Week, Dr Morpeth said that “for confidentiality reasons” she could not reveal how much the OST paid for the NEC.

However, she said: “Money exchanged hands and there were other organisations bidding. But we made it clear we were only interested in the NEC.”

She added: “The Open School Trust was an educational charity set up by Michael Young, who also set up the NEC.

“What he wanted it to do was provide a curriculum enhancement for children out of school. He had in mind children who were stuck at home or hospital or stayed at home because they were bullied. Also, children whose families are travellers.”

Although it has provided no financial support to the rebirth of the NEC, Dr Morpeth, director of the NEC from 1986 to 2003, said that the OST had been partnered by adult learning champion NIACE to move the college out of administration.

She said: “NIACE’s support has been a significant factor in this success story.

“It is continuing to give generous support in helping us get our systems up and running again. We share, of course, the broad aim of making it easier for people of all ages to return to learning and fit learning into their lives.”

David Hughes, chief executive of NIACE, described the takeover as “great news”.

Mr Hughes added: “The NEC always had a reputation for innovation in distance learning, pioneering approaches the Open University went on to develop so successfully.

“The NEC was also a long-standing member of NIACE and shared our commitment to widening participation for adult learners.

“We’re delighted that Dr Ros Morpeth has been successful in recovering the legacy of one of Lord Young’s inventions by using another – the Open School Trust – and we wish them every success in re-establishing NEC as an independent charity.”

Ian Oakley-Smith, a joint administrator and director at PwC, who are still looking for buyers for the other four parts of LSN, said: “We are pleased a charity with such great lineage has gone to a buyer who both understands its ethos and is able to secure its long term future.

“The sale enables the transfer of 26 members of staff within the NEC, will allow existing students to complete their courses and will preserve future employment opportunities in the area for what we hope will be many years.”