Cash-strapped college faces being split up

The new principal of a debt-ridden college has admitted that a merger three years ago has failed — and that FE minister Matthew Hancock has approved plans for it to break up.

West Kent College and South Kent College became K College after a KPMG report in 2008 recommended merger.

The colleges won approval from the Learning and Skills Council, predecessor to the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), after they carried out due diligence, including a consultation with stakeholders and the local community.

But crippling debts of more than £6m have since resulted in job losses and a SFA notice of concern.

Phil Frier, who became K College principal in January following the resignation of Bill Fearon, has now conceded that the merger, which drew together five campuses, had not been a success.

His proposal to split the college into two separate geographical areas — Dover and Folkestone, and Ashford, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells — has got the green light.

Mr Frier said: “The merger has not worked. FE colleges should be responsive to the needs of local employers and learners, and the corporation believes the proposal going forward to the minister is the best way forward.

“Preparations are underway for an open and competitive process to secure new college structures by September 2014.”

The break-up plan follows an independent review that identified and appraised the specific needs of the geographic regions that K College serves.

Mr Hancock has agreed that the SFA will run a competitive tender exercise.”

In Ashford, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, the corporation proposes either a new provider or a new governance team for a ‘standalone’ college.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “Along with the SFA and the Education Funding Agency (EFA), we have reviewed K College’s structure and prospects appraisal.

“Mr Hancock has agreed that the SFA will run a competitive tender exercise for its provision and the EFA’s provision currently delivered by the college.

“Proposals submitted through the competitive tender exercise will need to demonstrate how they will meet the needs of local people and businesses. More information will be available — including how providers can express their interest — on the SFA website in the next few weeks.

“The college will now concentrate on ensuring that continuity of learning is maintained. We expect to have secured the delivery of replacement provision . . .by early 2014.”

K College, which was given a grade three by Ofsted last year, will continue to recruit for the next academic year, starting in September. Courses offered will remain in line with the college plan until July next year, subject to learner numbers.

“We will continue the excellent work completed over the last year,” said Mr Frier.

“Securing an above-benchmark figure for long [full-time] programmes in 2011/12 was a fantastic achievement. We must build on this for 2012/13.

“Last term we congratulated nearly 100 members of staff who achieved a grade one for their teaching, and we look forward to many more throughout the year.

“Students can know that their future education is secure and improving throughout this difficult time for staff and managers.”