Troubled HS2 college spent £73K on failed Ofsted legal challenge

The beleaguered National College for HS2 blew £73,000 on a failed legal attempt at stopping Ofsted publishing a grade four report, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

The National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure (NCATI) provided the figure to FE Week after the college went to the High Court in the hope of suppressing the watchdog’s findings.

In February, Ofsted struck a deal to pay their own legal fees in return for the college dropping their judicial review.

The education watchdog has now told FE Week it spent just £12,500 on the case.

NCATI said its decision to go to court was taken following “full and careful consideration” and after they received advice from “leading legal counsel of a strong likelihood of success”, which was assessed “rigorously” against the costs and benefits of proceeding.

When Ofsted’s report was published last month, it revealed employers had to fill in gaps in their apprentices’ skills left by NCATI.

It also found that management and staff did not act quickly enough to protect apprentices from harassment.

“Staff did not prioritise the welfare and safeguarding needs of the apprentice over the needs of others in the class,” the report said, while also stating the college’s safeguarding arrangements are “not effective”.

The college was allowed to fund the legal challenge despite currently surviving on government bailouts and being in formal intervention, as the Department for Education has said it is an “independent organisation”.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan wrote to NCATI, in a letter published in February, confirming the college would be placed in supervised college status “in light of the severity of the college’s financial situation”.

This came after FE Commissioner Richard Atkins found that “without a commitment of 12 months of continued emergency funding, NCATI’s board will not be able to sign off on their 2018-19 financial statements as a going concern”.

The costs from the legal challengehad also been “significant”, the commissioner’s report said, and given the college is receiving emergency funding, it was “clearly a very difficult and sensitive issue”.

A £4.55 million bailout was previously agreed to sign off the college’s 2017-18 accounts. NCATI, formerly known as the National College for High Speed Rail, ran into problems with learner recruitment as delays in announcing HS2 contractors meant employers were unable to commit to the apprentice volumes they had originally anticipated.

Despite saying it would be recruiting 2,100 learners by 2022, the college only had 187 students on roll at the time of Ofsted’s inspection in November 2019. Of those, 167 were apprentices.