FE commissioner forces merger at Guildford College

A financially challenged college is being forced into a merger as it becomes only the second institution to be subject to FE commissioner intervention for a second time.

Richard Atkins’ report into Guildford College, published this morning, recommended that it undertake a structure and prospects appraisal to identify a potential partner to address its ongoing financial difficulties.

It’s the second time the college has been visited by the FE commissioner, having previously been in intervention between March 2014 and September 2015.

Only one other college, City of Liverpool College, has so far shared this dubious honour.

Guildford College “has faced difficulties for a number of years”, Mr Atkins’ report said.

“Its financial position has been weak and is likely to continue to be so for the medium term as it seeks to improve enrolments (and hence increase income) and make significant cost savings,” he wrote.

He noted that “progress has stalled” towards implementation of the Surrey area review recommendation that the college pursue a federation or merger.

“Fresh impetus is now required,” he said.

The main recommendation was that the college “fully engages with and supports” an FE commissioner-led SPA to “identify a merger partner for the college, with a merger to be completed by the end of calendar year 2018 at the latest”.

Mr Atkins’ visit to the college was “a result of the college’s uncertain financial position”.

It is currently subject to two notices of concern from the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

The first, for financial health, was issued in March 2014, while a second, for minimum standards in apprenticeships, was issued the following March.

A notice of concern for financial control, issued in June 2015, was lifted in March last year, according to the report.

The college’s 2016/17 accounts, dated December 21, indicated that its financial health would remain at ‘satisfactory’ before moderation by the ESFA.

However, the report suggested that matters may be less rosy: another of his recommendations is that the college “determines as a matter of urgency whether it needs to seek exceptional financial support in 2018”.

He also urged the college to complete a “review of its 2017/18 financial forecast which is currently underway” and develop “reforecasts” for both 2017/18 and 2018/19.

“Given the importance of establishing a credible financial baseline, the college should engage its internal auditors to undertake a review of the reforecasts when they are complete,” he recommended.

Other recommendations related to quality improvement at the college, rated grade three at its most recent inspection in June.

“Ahead of the merger being achieved, it is essential that you rapidly improve the quality of delivery for current learners, through strengthening the college’s post inspection action plan,” Justine Greening, former education secretary, wrote in a letter to the college’s chair accompanying the commissioner’s report.

A college spokesperson said it was “actively working with the FE Commissioner’s Office to seek a merger partner who will support the growth and development of the Guildford College Group.”