Chair of college embroiled in bitter merger row resigns

The embattled chair of a London college that was at the centre of a bitter row with staff and local residents over its merger plans has dramatically resigned.

Mary Curnock Cook (pictured above), chair of Kensington Chelsea College, was said to have walked out of a governors’ meeting last night after announcing she was stepping down with immediate effect.

The college is looking for a new partner after its previously planned merger was called off following direct intervention by the FE commissioner Richard Atkins, which was triggered by fallout from the fire tragedy at nearby Grenfell Tower.

Ms Curnock Cook’s resignation with immediate effect was confirmed this morning.

Following discussions about her “continued chairmanship with the FE commissioner, the principal and the deputy chair” she said she had “come to the conclusion that the end of the academic year is the right time to stand down and allow new leadership to take the college through the next phase of its development”.

“I thank all members of the corporation and staff at KCC for their service while I have been chair and wish students and staff every success in the future,” she said.

She later tweeted that she “had always said she would stand down if her chairmanship was more of a hindrance than a help”.

Ian Valvona will step up as interim chair until a permanent replacement is appointed.

Ms Curnock Cook, the former boss of the University and Colleges Adminissions Service, took over as chair at KCC in May last year.

This was around the same time that a huge scandal broke around the £25.3 million sale of its Wornington Road campus to the local council.

There was huge public outcry as it emerged that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea planned to build housing over most of the site, with a much-reduced space for learning.

That prompted the Save Wornington campaign, with local residents – some of whom were caught up in the Grenfell Tower fire which claimed 72 lives in June last year – fighting to save their local campus.

Ms Curnock Cook became a focus for much of the embittered comments from staff and residents at a series of public meetings on the plans.

She eventually reached an agreement with RBKC to pause the redevelopment, but she repeatedly refused to cancel the merger.

Campaigners opposed this due to fears the resulting super-college would not retain the contentious Wornington campus in the long term.

The merger had been set to go through in January, but in December this was put on hold as the FE commissioner intervened.

It’s understood this came at the request of skills minister Anne Milton, who met with members of the campaign group.

In late January Mr Atkins told campaigners the merger was off.

The following month, the college board conceded “there was more we could have done to secure local community support for last year’s merger plans”.

It confirmed the college would co-operate with a new commissioner-led structure and prospects appraisal seeking a different merger partner.

At the time she vowed to stay on as chair, insisting that she had the full backing on the board.

“I have always seen my role to steer KCC to a secure and successful future,” she said. “This continues to be my priority.”

A college spokesperson paid tribute to Ms Curnock Cook, and said she had “worked tirelessly to help lead the college through an unprecedented period of change and challenge. It is testament to her efforts that the college has retained a successful focus on improving teaching, learning and student achievements”.

Her “commitment to public service at such a complex point in the College’s history has been exemplary” and the college thanked her “for the key role she has played over the past year and wishes her well for the future”

KCC has yet to announce who its new merger partner is.

In a statement last week, a spokesperson said it was “continuing to work closely with the FE commissioner’s team on its structure and prospects appraisal to secure a new strategic partner”.