Leaders at a sixth form college who announced “abrupt” plans to shut this summer and leave dozens of students in limbo have bowed to pressure and committed to delaying closure by a year, admitting they “got it wrong”.
Queen Alexandra Sixth Form College in Wallsend said this week that it would close at the end of the academic year because plummeting student numbers over the last three years had left it “no longer financially viable”.
It left 49 AS students in the first year of their A-levels scrambling to sort provision for next year. But following outcry from students, parents, Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell and the University and College Union, the decision has been postponed by a year.
The sixth form, which is part of the Tyne Coast College group, has now committed to seeing through the first-year students and instead close in July 2024.
Following a crisis meeting between chief executive Lindsey Whiterod and the chair of governors this morning, Whiterod admitted it had been the wrong call to close so hastily.
“The response to our announcement to cease A-level provision has been overwhelming. It is clear that the students absolutely love studying at the QA and the response from parents, students and previous students has been incredible. The chair and I have reflected on our decision and, simply put, we got it wrong,” Whiterod explained.
“Myself and the chair can only apologise for the stress that this has created to parents, students, teaching and support staff who I must personally commend and thank for how well they have carried on supporting our learners after the initial announcement.”
The college said that it wanted to make the announcement as soon as possible to minimise disruption to students preparing for exams.
The initial announcement this week had put 11 members of staff at risk of losing their jobs, and an application process of voluntary redundancy had already begun, as well as endeavours to finds alternative roles for staff under threat.
Whiterod confirmed the result of the fresh announcement will “not create efficiencies elsewhere”.
Staff at the college had been hastily attempting to find alternative sites for the first-year students to complete their studies for next year, which had included forming individualised spreadsheets for students based on what they were studying and where they could be matched, and plans to sort one-to-one meetings to discuss options.
Today’s update means that will no longer be necessary.
On Thursday, the college said it made the announcement of the impending closure at the earliest opportunity, but it attracted widespread ire, including from Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell who questioned how “abruptly” the decision had been made.
“I fully share the concerns that have been raised with me and have today been in contact with the principal of Tyne Coast College, the local authority and the minister of state for higher education to see what can be done to address this issue,” he said before the latest announcement.
UCU regional support official Jon Bryan added: “Staff, students and the local community are rightly furious that their local sixth form college will no longer cater to A-level students. Ending A-level provision would see young people in Wallsend lose key educational opportunities and the decision must be reversed.”
In its original announcement, a spokesperson for Tyne Coast College said it was a “challenging” time for the sector, with the decision coming after a review of its curriculum.
“Despite trying to grow the provision with new A-level options in the 2022/23 academic year, sadly we did not see growth,” the spokesperson added.
It is understood the sixth form currently has 49 AS-level students and 66 second-year students. FE Week has asked the college to clarify how much its student numbers have declined by in the last few years.
Tyne Coast College accounts for 2021/22 indicated a £3.4 million deficit for the year before other gains and losses, however £2.5 million of that was because of changes to the Tyne and Wear local government pension scheme.
Its adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) was reported at £1.3 million.
Tyne Coast College principal Lindsey Whiterod had previously been a national leader in FE up to March last year – a programme that sits alongside the FE commissioner’s office who work with senior leaders to provide strategic mentoring and advice on improvement plans for the sector.