Mystery surrounds a “confidential” review of further education in Cornwall as pressure grows on the region’s two colleges to work more closely together.
Glimpses into the workings of the secretive review have come as Cornwall College Group announced the resignation of its principal amid an ongoing struggle to secure emergency government funding.
The review, which began in June, came at the urging of Cornwall Council. FE Week understands the council wrote to skills minister Anne Milton to persuade the government to look into post-16 education in the county.
Truro and Penwith College has just over 5,000 16-18-year-old learners, while Cornwall College – which has previously been warned over falling learner numbers – has closer to 3,500.
The secret review comes after an area-review report covering Cornwall, as well as Somerset, Devon and the Isles of Scilly, was published in August 2017 without recommending any mergers.
However, it did recommend “collaboration” between Cornwall College and Truro and Penwith College, including the establishment of “a joint project group with an independent chair to oversee the relationship between the colleges and facilitate closer collaboration”.
This closer collaboration was to include the delivery of higher education, apprenticeships and provision for students with high needs, as well as future curriculum developments at the new Callywith College.
“By working together on areas of mutual interest the colleges will be able to reduce unhelpful competition,” the report said.
However, this formal collaboration has never materialised, and the two colleges remain as rivals.
The review is a source of concern for Truro and Penwith College, which said its governors were asked by the FE commissioner to “take part voluntarily in a confidential wider post-16 review of Cornwall to assist with ongoing interventions at Cornwall College in their ‘fresh start’ process”.
A spokesperson added: “Some interim drafts with a range of potential recommendations have been produced for discussion at the review meetings. Several of these draft recommendations do not reflect the position of governors here.”
More information on the draft recommendations, the reasons behind the review or its scope have not been forthcoming. The Department for Education confirmed it was conducting the review “following a request from Cornwall Council” but would not go into any further details and Cornwall Council would only confirm it was participating. Cornwall College and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, which is also taking part, would not comment.
Cornwall College Group, which received £4.5 million emergency funding in 2016/17 and £3.5 million in 2017/18, is still waiting to hear if it has been successful in applying for a restructuring grant, rumoured to be in the region of over £30 million.
On Wednesday, it announced that its principal and chief executive Raoul Humphreys was resigning.
In a statement, Mr Humphreys said he was “proud of the contribution that I have made in leading the college’s recent financial recovery and getting close to finalising a refinancing package through the fresh start programme.
“To expedite this process, I have decided to step down with immediate effect to allow a new team to implement the next phase of the college’s development.”
Announcing the resignation in an email to staff, chair of governors Ian Tunbridge said the board was “optimistic about the future as we go through the fresh start and the post 16 Cornwall review”.
The fresh start approach means colleges must commit to significantly changing their business or operating model, including potentially changing senior leadership. It is not clear if the fresh start approach or the resignation of Mr Humphreys – who is the seventh high profile resignation since September 25 – is connected to the post-16 review.
An FE commissioner assessment summary of the college group, published in July 2017, said Mr Humphreys and the new leadership team were not responsible for the “loss of financial control” experienced by the college under the previous principal Amarjit Basi, who resigned in July 2016 with a £200,000 payout.
The report specifically noted “increased competition in the technical and vocational market from Truro and Penwith College” as one of the key challenges facing the college, and warned that it had a “significant problem” with small class sizes caused by “the specialist and highly technical nature of some of its courses and also the low attainment of a larger-than average percentage of many of its students”.
The spokesperson for Truro and Penwith College said the “close working” between the rival colleges would “follow the outcome of the fresh start process, which will restore stability to Cornwall College”.