Dorset merger on the cards to secure future of struggling college

Kingston Maurward College in talks to join Weymouth College

Kingston Maurward College in talks to join Weymouth College

A cash-strapped land-based college in Dorset is considering a merger to secure its long-term survival.

Kingston Maurward College is in discussions to join Weymouth College off the back of a recent FE commissioner-led review.

A joint statement from the principals involved said the plan is for each college to “retain its own identity”, but under a larger corporate structure which will “make both colleges and the group more financially resilient”. The pair are aiming for a merger date of August 2024.

Kingston Maurward College has been put in and out of formal government intervention multiple times since 2015 for deteriorating financial performance. The land-based college, which is set in 750 acres of farmland, parkland, gardens and a conservation area near Dorchester, suffered a big hit to its commercial income during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

The college is still yet to publish accounts for 2021/22 but previous financial statements showed an anticipated deficit of £1.3 million by the end of July 2022, and an EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) deficit of £234,000. The college’s cash resources were also “at the lowest level”.

Kingston Maurward is also currently locked in a dispute over off-the-job training evidence with the Education and Skills Funding Agency which could force it to repay £850,000 in apprenticeship funding.

The college has not received any emergency bailout funding to help it stay afloat from the government so far, but principal Luke Rake admitted this was “likely to be necessary” this financial year because of inflationary pressures.

Merger will make both colleges ‘more financially resilient’

Asked whether Kingston Maurward’s survival is in doubt if the merger with Weymouth does not go ahead, Rake said: “The provision? No – the need for land-based provision in one of England’s most rural counties is a given, and the strategic value of this and the site as well is recognised by everyone. The corporation? Maybe – it would need to be considered as part of a wider costs review by the Department for Education.”

He added: “At this stage though, closure is nowhere near the table and we are all, including the DfE and FE commissioner, committed to finding the best solution for the county.”

Weymouth College has experienced its own financial difficulties in recent years. It was handed a financial notice to improve in 2020, but had it lifted in August 2022.

Julia Howe, principal of Weymouth College, said: “We believe that this place-based solution [merger], providing education, skills and training across rural and coastal Dorset will deliver a cohesive and high-performing offer across many sectors for our local and regional communities.”

Weymouth College teaches over 2,800 students while Kingston Maurward has around 1,000. The colleges, both rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, are located around 10 miles apart.

Rake said the idea of a Dorset college group has been floated several times over the past decade. A public consultation on the plan is expected to launch in the spring.

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