Resilient Ricketts: How Brooklands was saved from going broke

The story of a college's fight for survival after a subcontracting scandal left it on the brink of insolvency

The story of a college's fight for survival after a subcontracting scandal left it on the brink of insolvency

Long read

Christine Ricketts tells FE Week how an all-or-nothing council meeting saved Brooklands College from going bust, clearing a path to a ‘bright and thriving future’

On Tuesday December 5, 2023, Christine Ricketts headed to Elmbridge Borough Council for a showdown presentation with 15 councillors that would decide whether Brooklands College would go insolvent, or survive. 

It was the culmination of four years of estates planning triggered by a subcontracting scandal that required the small college to repay the Department for Education more than £20 million.

“There were no other options on the table. It was high stakes,” the principal explains.

“I remember how emotional I felt when I presented, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was crystal clear to me that we had to get that planning. I’m not a business person but I do care about students, and I’m the CEO of a college, so that’s how I approached it.”

And her approach worked. Despite one councillor – unfairly and inappropriately in Ricketts’ view – suggesting the principal was effectively blackmailing the council into approving the £45 million redevelopment to ensure the area has a college, 11 councillors voted in favour, and four opposed.

The greenlight was met with celebrations outside the council hall at around 9.30 pm from staff who went along to support their principal. But for Ricketts, there was no time to rest. Despite one weight being lifted off her shoulders, Ofsted had begun inspecting her college that very same day.

She was finally able to “take a moment” and reflect on a stressful but “fantastic” week on the Friday when the college was told it would retain its ‘good’ rating.

The journey to get to this point was one of twists, turns, survival and resilience for the Surrey-based college.

The scandal that almost broke Brooklands

Longstanding FE Week readers will remember how events unfolded in 2018 that plunged the then-financially healthy college to the brink of insolvency overnight.

To recap: The Education and Skills Funding Agency discovered how one of Brooklands College’s subcontractors, SCL Security Ltd, was using apprenticeship funding illegally including by making up “ghost” learners and using funding to pay wages.

The college handed over millions of pounds over three years with little oversight to the mysterious provider that had hardly any staff and fake locations across the country.

As Brooklands was the prime provider in the relationship, it fell on the college to repay the government when officials discovered fraudulent activity – a whopping £20 million worth.

Several other colleges also got stung by SCL Security, but nowhere near the scale of Brooklands. 

The subcontractor went bust in 2020 and its owner, Andrew Merritt, has been banned from running a company until August 15, 2029, by the Insolvency Service. He’s also had to sell his multi-million-pound home to repay some creditors. 

The SCL Security case was one of the main reasons for the government’s subcontracting crackdown that began in 2020.

Ricketts joined the college as deputy principal in 2016 and stepped up to the top job in 2019 after the former principal, who handled subcontracting and apprenticeship arrangements directly as a separate unit from other parts of the college, resigned. 

The FE Commissioner intervened and imposed an immediate ban on subcontracting – a big income stream for the college. The college saw its budget halve from £23 million in 2017 to £11 million in 2020.

Income has begun to increase in recent years and sat at £13 million in 2023, driven by increases in student numbers, particularly in its own direct apprenticeship delivery.

Andrew Baird, one of the FE Commissioner’s national leaders of governance, was parachuted into Brooklands College as chair in 2019 to aid Ricketts in the recovery mission.

It says more about a person if they step up rather than walk away

The principal says she was “shocked” at the “huge scale” of fraud, lack of integrity and debt the college was left with, but that she was “absolutely aware” of the recovery job at hand.

“It says more about a person if they step up rather than walk away in a situation like that.

“I knew what the challenges were but I also knew this was a good college with loads of potential in terms of the estate and the importance of its position in the local community.”

One of the key challenges Ricketts faced was communication about the college’s future with staff and students amid reports of potential insolvency in the trade and local press.

“It was a very difficult period. Insolvency was discussed in ESFA meetings, but my responsibility was to give continuity to the college. So, irrespective of all of the noise, I had a responsibility to ensure students had a really good experience.

“The fear definitely filters down to the staff. It’ll only filter down to the students if the staff are relaying some of those negative messages about survival. So, our comms approach and engagement with the staff was absolutely critical.

“Brooklands is very fortunate to have very committed, hard-working staff who really care about the students and that has come through.”

Staff numbers have reduced at Brooklands College from over 300 in 2018 to 231 in 2023.

Ricketts says she brought in a completely new executive team when she took on the top job after the SCL Security fiasco came to light, but claims staff have remained relatively stable.

She admits that staff were “rightly concerned of the scale of the SCL challenge” and the sudden change in leadership caused “disruption”, but turnover “wasn’t particularly high”.

The apparent solid relationship between leadership, staff and students was evident when in late 2019 Ofsted came knocking and handed the college a ‘good’ judgment, an achievement which it repeated this year.

The £45m redevelopment rescue

While good quality education was being delivered, leadership had to work on a debt-repayment plan and chose to revisit an idea first floated in 2007 about redeveloping its large multi-site campus.

In the aftermath of Covid, the college announced a major resizing plan that involved selling off land and a historic mansion to make way for houses in a deal worth around £45 million with Cala Homes.

The project at Brooklands’ Weybridge site will build 320 new homes, including 128 “affordable homes” for local families, a new sports centre, a community hub, and public access to 12 hectares of woodland.

The new campus will also feature a new dedicated special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) building.

But, while leadership worked on the proposal the college was brought under the spotlight for the wrong reasons again – this time because its government consultant chair, Andrew Baird, became embroiled in a race row.

He shared a racist meme in a local Conservative Party WhatsApp group about Rishi Sunak after his appointment as prime minister in October 2022. The college troubleshooter was suspended by the Tory Party and resigned as chair of Brooklands. 

Ricketts said when the situation emerged, she was “initially shocked” but went straight into leadership mode to promote then-vice chair Barbara Spittle to interim chair and communicate the change to staff. 

“There was a little bit of disruption, obviously, because of the nature of Andrew leaving,” Ricketts says, “but it was absolutely right that we acted immediately”.

The college named a new permanent chair in summer 2023, bringing in former university vice-chancellor Professor Craig Mahoney, who “adds a new set of skills and expertise that actually we really needed”.

After handling the chair controversy, attention returned to securing the planning application for the redevelopment and it all boiled down to that presentation to council leaders on December 15. Work is now expected to start after the Easter break.

Resizing, not downsizing

Selling off college buildings and land for homes has often led to local outrage in various parts of the college in recent years, considering the implications of a reduced course offer.

Ricketts says the question was raised during the estates development but claims the project will actually allow the college to grow its 16-18 space, in its “buoyant” STEM offer and SEND. 

“Although we’re resizing, we’re not downsizing. We’ve got so much land that now it feels like a land-based college. So, we will consolidate the college, it will be much better environment for the students.”

Far from cutting provision, Brooklands will be introducing new courses including T Levels from September.

Student numbers have also “held up” at the college and leaders predict growth from demographic estimations in the coming years.

Ricketts expects the “vast majority” of Brooklands’ government debt to be repaid when Cala Homes transfers the money for the project this year. Final repayments will be made over the next few years.

Survival, resilience, leadership

Next steps will be exiting formal intervention. The college is still banned from subcontracting but has no desire to re-enter that market anytime soon.

Reflecting on the saga, Ricketts says it has been an “absolute privilege” despite the circumstances. “If I’m honest, I didn’t really stop at any point and think, ‘oh, this is chaotic or how are we how are we going to get through this?’

“But it has certainly developed me as a leader to come through that journey and have real positives on the redevelopment and Ofsted. It’s amazing. The team have done a fantastic job.

“How I’m not burnt out I’m not sure, but my intention is to stay and see the development through. It’s a fantastic story in FE about survival, about resilience, about strong leadership.

“We are on our way for that bright and thriving future.”

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One comment

  1. A Governor

    As far as I am aware, it’s the Board’s role to appoint the Chair of governors, not the CEO.
    ‘ Ricketts said when the situation emerged, she was “initially shocked” but went straight into leadership mode to promote then-vice chair Barbara Spittle to interim chair and communicate the change to staff’.
    The CEO is in place at the behest of the Board, not the other way around.