The FE Commissioner has become embroiled in the battle to save a college campus for residents dealing with the fallout of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Richard Atkins visited Kensington and Chelsea College this week to review its proposed merger with Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, which had been set for January 2018.
It is understood he was sent in by skills minister Anne Milton, after she met with members of the Grenfell Action who are campaigning to stop KCC’s Wornington Road campus from being redeveloped for housing.
Verena Beane, a retired KCC employee and leading campaigner, said a major reason the group was determined to stop the merger was because they think the resulting super-college would be less likely to retain the campus used by the sort of less privileged residents affected by the fire at nearby Grenfell Tower.
She added the group “put to the minister very strongly how the community felt that the loss of their local community college would be a step too far”, during the meeting arranged following requests by the group’s founder, Grenfell-survivor Ed Daffarn, to Nick Hurd, the minister for Grenfell victims.
The Wornington Road campus, one of the college’s two main sites, was recently sold under a lease-back deal for £25.3 million to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which then outlined plans for the site that would at best result in greatly reduced teaching space.
This provoked a furious local reaction, and residents clashed with college and council leaders during a heated public meeting in September.
They claimed this was an example of “social cleansing” where services for poorer people could make way for costly housing.
Kim Taylor-Smith, who took over as deputy leader of the council in July and is lead member for Grenfell recovery, said afterwards that he had listened to the complaints the following week, and the campus redevelopment plans had been paused.
KCC was rated as ‘requires improvement’ in its most recent Ofsted report, published in March, while EHWLC had only come out of FE commissioner intervention in September, having improved from an Ofsted grade four to a grade two in May.
“A merger at this early stage of recovery is just crazy,” Ms Beane said.
She acknowledged that the “high profile” of the area following the tragic events of June 14, which led to 71 deaths, had helped the group to get the minister’s ear.
“We were fighting it before Grenfell, and we were getting small wins, but the whole thing has become a centre of focus in North Kensington,” she said.
“The one thing we’re asking for is that these things be done as a form of reparation.”
The Department for Education would not be drawn on whether it was giving special treatment to the college, nor would it say whether Anne Milton had asked the FE commissioner to intervene.
But a spokesperson did confirm that Mr Atkins was carrying out a review into the decision by KCC to merge with EHWLC.
“The commissioner will take into account the educational and financial case for the merger, and consider any wider issues surrounding the Wornington Road site,” he said.
The two colleges said in a joint statement: “We welcome the FE commissioner’s decision to review the merger and we look forward to receiving his feedback.
“We have responded to the concerns raised through the public consultation as part of the proposed merger and we are confident that the merger will secure the future of Kensington and Chelsea College, its staff and students as well as serving the needs of local residents and employers through its Chelsea and North Kensington sites.”