The FE Commissioner, Richard Atkins, was due to visit West Kent and Ashford College following their Ofsted grade three late last year.
In the week before the scheduled visit, he was tipped off by another principal that Hadlow College had run out of cash and the finance director was about to quit.
They had approached the other college for help, but instead, the principal alerted Atkins to what “sounds really serious”.
Here, in Atkins’ own words, tells FE Week editor Nick Linford what he found when he arrived at Hadlow College in early February.
Four of us went into the college four times in early February, including former principals and chartered accountants, and we were genuinely shocked by what we found.
After the tip-off, they were about to run out of money, I knew when we arrived things were going to be difficult.
When we walked through the door the vice principal, Mark Lumsden-Taylor, had already resigned and was on gardening leave.
He still lived on the premises but had already left his employment by the first day we arrived.
The principal, Paul Hannan, was in the college on the day we arrived.
He was not well and he left the college at midday to see a doctor and he did not return, and I do not think he ever came back from that moment.
I was also told the vice-principal was suffering from ill-health.
So when I arrived, I was confronted with both the vice principal and principal saying they were suffering from ill health.
But I was able to meet with key governors and other senior leaders, and it became really obvious to us very quickly – the governors had been failing in their fiduciary duty.
Hadlow was completely running out of money and would not be able to make the payroll in February without exceptional financial support.
There was a real determination not to receive difficult feedback
There had been very poor communication and lack of transparency and we had serious concerns about clerking and about audits.
We could see mission drift, very overly complex subsidiary company arrangements, over-complex relations between the two colleges and governance.
There were also irregularities in additional learning support funding which we had first begun to identify at the end of area review.
Then there were what I would describe as inaccurate self-assessments, with Hadlow still self-assessing as “outstanding” for overall effectiveness and for leadership.
And something I see in a number of colleges that fail – there was a real determination not to receive difficult feedback.
They were still celebrating their Ofsted “outstanding” from nine years previously, and they found any form of difficult feedback during area review, or during our intervention,
very difficult to deal with.
They couldn’t recognise it.
We found things like Betteshanger, which we struggled at first to understand – the vineyard, the cookery school.
Neither seemed to be financially successful, nor core business.
Hadlow would not be able to make the payroll in February
Given the combination of running out of money and the very poor governance and leadership at the college in previous years, it was inevitable this college would end up in
I’m saddened that has happened, but I think it was absolutely appropriate.
The education administrator has a legal responsibility to take forward investigations into the various concerns we have about what we found when we went there in February, in terms of mismanagement, poor financial info and potential irregularities, of which there are several.
Are you tough enough? FE Commissioner on the hunt for deputy and advisers
The Department for Education is on the hunt for a new deputy FE Commissioner and four advisers for the commissioner’s office.
According to an advert posted on the Cabinet Office website, the deputy commissioner role can earn up to £140,000 a year for a maximum of 200 days’ work and would involve supporting the commissioner, Richard Atkins, in diagnostic assessments, interventions, local provision reviews, and structure and prospects appraisals.
Colleges that are at risk from a quality or financial issue can receive a diagnostic assessment from the commissioner, where their approach to managing risks is appraised.
The much more serious formal interventions involve the commissioner assessing the capacity of the existing governance and leadership at a single, troubled institution, and recommending changes to help its outlook, and that of its learners.
Formal interventions have previously taken place at Hadlow College (see above), West Kent and Ashford College and North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College to name a few.
Local provision reviews were announced in April, and involve looking at an area, rather than an isolated institution.
The DfE was criticised by the Association of Colleges at the time for not including small “non-viable” school sixth forms, which it said are too costly and compromise too much on quality.
A structure and prospects appraisal is currently being carried out at Hadlow, and involves reviewing options for changing an institution’s structure.
Deputy commissioners also lead the FE advisers, who can earn up to £120,000 a year for the same maximum number of days, and who help determine the best way in which further education can be delivered in any given area.
Anyone interested in either role has until midday on 5 June to submit their applications, with final interviews scheduled for between 28 June and 3 July.