The application for educational administration by Hadlow College is a watershed moment for FE. It will be the first time the College Oversight guidance has been used to steer an FE provider out of trouble. In some senses, this is an opportunity to see if the guidance works. But my overwhelming feeling is of concern for the students and staff, and disappointment that we are even considering this at Hadlow College.
I’ve represented Tonbridge and Malling in parliament for four years. Over that time I’ve had an excellent relationship with the college. I knew Paul Hannan, the former Principal of the Hadlow Group and his former deputy, Mark Lumsdon-Taylor and when asked, I put a lot of work into securing funding for the college. We had some monumental battles, primarily about FE funding with the then Skills Funding Agency, and I have been proud to get millions of pounds for further education in Kent. That’s why this news is so disappointing.
Hadlow College matters because it is different; its land-based teaching has attracted students from across the county who had no interest in courses run by other colleges. Over the years it has become a major landowner in the Hadlow area and has seen its teaching expand. Hadlow Rural Community School, on the same site and part of the Hadlow Group, is a wonderful example of somewhere where students do their GCSE’s and gain other qualifications through a unique method of teaching.
Kent is known as the Garden of England and for centuries its agricultural heritage has been at the forefront of growth in the economy. As the industry looks to adapt, and the county deals with new pressures, it needs the workforce skilled in agricultural learning. Hadlow College provides this like nowhere else.
That’s why my main priority is the students. Courses must be completed, and land-based learning must remain on the site. It’s something I’ve pressed home to the skills minister, Anne Milton MP, at the Department for Education (DfE) and Richard Atkins, the FE Commissioner, over the past few weeks. Simply transferring students somewhere else won’t work for Hadlow. It can’t – because there’s nowhere else like it.
Just two weeks ago, following my latest meeting at the DfE, I wrote to Ms Milton to highlight this. I’m still talking to them and am carefully watching their approach.
So far, the DfE has been responding to the further challenges we face. Hadlow College is part of a wider group, including the rural community school, and also West Kent and Ashford colleges. Though more traditional in their approach, the relationship between each establishment means they have deep roots in our community. In Tonbridge and Malling, almost everyone knows someone who has studied, or is studying, at one of the Hadlow Group’s colleges.
In Kent we are not immune to financial difficulties in Further Education. West Kent and Ashford College came into the Hadlow Group in 2014 because of the financial problems with the then K College. While this acquisition hasn’t affected the finances of the group, clearly FE funding needs reform.
It’s why I’m pleased the DfE College Oversight guidance was introduced earlier this year. The route forward is defined, if uncertain. It shows a clear and co-ordinated response from the government to colleges in financial difficulty. We will have to see if this works.
What is clear is that a thorough investigation is needed to understand why we got into this position in the first place. I know I’m not the only person who spent a considerable amount of time with the previous leadership trying to get more funding for the group. It’s important to know where this has been spent.
But my thoughts are with the staff, students and all those who work at the college. The uncertainty is leaving us all, including all businesses who work with the college, with doubt as to what the long term impact will be. Securing the day to day running of the college is important, and I’ll be working closely with the Interim Principal, Graham Morley, over the coming months to make sure this continues.