‘Extreme challenge’ from FE Commissioner’s team helps put New College Nottingham on road to recovery

By the time FE Commissioner Dr David Collins had identified the historic “deterioration in New College Nottingham’s (NCN’s) financial position,” actions to rectify the situation were already in place and working. Dawn Whitemore explains how the college has successfully continued with efforts to balance the books.

A year ago, I found myself in the unenviable position of being three months into my new role as principal, facing a £2.7m underlying budget deficit.

As a college we had already begun to tackle this head on, but decided that it was important to request support early and took the unusual step of highlighting our position to the FE Commissioner Dr David Collins, pre-empting a notice of concern from the Skills Funding Agency.

Dr Collins and his team joined us in February, by which time we were already implementing our robust financial recovery plan, and following his ratification of our approach, we continued our course to take us back into the black.

I feel it is important to highlight that although Dr Collin’s team were extremely challenging, their support was invaluable in helping us chart the course to recovery.

What a difference a year makes. The turnaround we’ve made has been remarkable — we exceeded our planned surplus in 2014/15 by delivering a £0.6m underlying surplus and, despite further government funding cuts of £3.8m, we’re on track to achieve our planned £1m surplus this academic year.

One of the most difficult challenges that any college has when faced with implementing a financial recovery programme is ensuring that quality and the learner experience is not compromised.

What is most pleasing is that we have been able to turn around our financial difficulties while still investing in teaching and learning, which has resulted in a further increase in success rates.

We exceeded our planned surplus in 2014/15 by delivering a £0.6m underlying surplus and, despite further government funding cuts of £3.8m, we’re on track to achieve our planned £1m surplus this academic year

We have achieved an 86 per cent overall success rate — a 2 per cent improvement on last year — and a 14 per cent increase in our apprenticeship success rate. Our English and maths results are also something we can be incredibly proud of.

We achieved what we set out to because we had a strict focus on our core business. We have continued to ask ourselves at every stage: what’s in it for the learner? We did not allow ourselves to be distracted or diverted from our goal to deliver first class education and skills.

This approach has been embraced by the wider college, with staff appreciating the clarity and consistency. I have to say my team has gone the extra mile to deliver what we set out to do.

As a principal, you can’t ask for a better endorsement than that of your learners, and this year’s college learner survey has proven that this revitalised focus has paid off. My learners have told me they love college and are proud to be part of NCN and I can’t ask for more than that.

However, it has also been heartening to have support from the sector and our stakeholders. This month I received letters from Dr Collins and Skills Minister Nick Boles congratulating us on our hard work and confirming we’re no longer subject to intervention by the FE Commissioner’s office, alongside a letter from our bank describing our financial recovery as ‘first class’.

But this is not the time to sit back and rest on our laurels. Like most, if not all, FE Week readers, I followed the Chancellor’s Spending Review with interest, bracing myself for dire consequences for the sector. Early indications are that the overall picture will not be as detrimental to FE as first thought, however, the devil is always in the detail.

It is our responsibility to ensure that our sector is financially sustainable and continues to prioritise learning and skills development. We must focus on running our businesses like businesses so we can stay agile and resilient to whatever changes may come in the future.

Those changes are already on the horizon here in Nottingham and many other cities across the country. In Nottingham we have committed to a single FE proposition, and the work we have done on delivering a positive financial outlook will give the new college the best possible start.

We’ve all got ambitions — ambitions for our institutions, and bold ambitions from our government for our sector and I’m 100 per cent committed to achieving them.

However, my ambitions are, and have always been, to help each and every one of my learners achieve theirs.

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