An education minister has admitted the government has no power to preserve Stourbridge College’s site for educational use, heightening concern that it could instead become housing.
Following an announcement in May that cash-strapped Birmingham Metropolitan College would be selling its site in Stourbridge, its local MP Margot James yesterday led a Westminster Hall debate on adult learning and vocational skills in the area.
“The site has been associated with education for many years, and it is the deep wish of our community that the site be protected in future for educational use, at least for the most part, for the generations to come,” was James’ main call.
But she received little reassurance from Michelle Donelan, who is one of three ministers helping with the FE brief in the Department for Education.
“I want to put it on record that I have listened to the proposal mentioned by the hon. Member for Stourbridge for the site to continue as an educational facility with some adult education,” Donelan said.
“Although I do not have jurisdiction over that option, I encourage all local stakeholders to review and explore it.
“It is matter for BMet, however, and its governors will need to demonstrate that they secure the best value from the sale of the asset to satisfy their legal responsibilities as trustees.”
The minister used her speech to express how the closure of the Stourbridge campus “is regrettable” and “I do not want to underestimate the impact that it has had across the community and the ripples that we have seen”.
She added that Stourbridge’s closure “will continue to cast a shadow over the area”, but said it was the “best option” to support BMet’s financial sustainability and, “crucially, to ensure that good-quality provision was available for current and future students”.
BMet is selling off Stourbridge College, which dates back over 100 years, in order to pay back debts which had totalled £8.9 million to the banks and £7.5 million to the Education and Skills Funding Agency by May of this year.
Stourbridge’s learners have been transferred to Dudley or Halesowen colleges, and some staff have also been absorbed by those two.
Donelan announced yesterday that the FE Commissioner’s team, who intervened at BMet earlier this year, is planning to undertake a capacity and capability review to assess the group’s progress since a new leadership team arrived.
This is in addition to Dame Mary Ney’s review of how the Department for Education monitors college finances and financial management.
The commissioner has come in for criticism from a survey of Stourbridge’s stakeholders conducted by the University and College Union, which said their experience was “symptomatic of a more widespread failure by the FE Commissioner to engage effectively with staff and students”.
Labour’s shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden said at yesterday’s debate this survey showed how: “Flawed and disconnected that intervention system for colleges can become.
“It has become far too casual about how it engages with people in the colleges, and apprenticeships have not been engaged with in any meaningful way.”
Marsden said Stourbridge’s problems were not unique, highlighting how: “In recent weeks, the columns of FE Week have been littered with accounts of problems at other colleges.”
He cited the cases of Brooklands College, where it was reported the ESFA ignored a whistleblower nearly two years earlier; the planned dissolution of National College Creative Industries, despite Department for Education bailouts; and the appointment of Lord Agnew as an FE “enforcer”.
“Stourbridge College was not failing, but it was still put into this situation,” Marsden said.
“It had those buildings, which Margot James is so keen to preserve in another capacity, but that did not save it from being shut down.”
James said staff and students had told her the closure “came as a terrible shock and something of a bereavement”.
“The board of BMet and the ESFA should reflect hard on the fact that there would be huge opposition to selling the Hagley Road site for residential development,” she warned.
In addition to the Ney’s inquiry and the planned FE Commissioner review, the National Audit Office confirmed it will be investigating the management of colleges’ financial sustainability, after James wrote asking them to investigate BMet.