Sixth form college leaders failed to spot ‘terminal’ finances



A sixth form college principal and governing body failed to identify its “now terminal” financial position, the Department for Education has revealed today in an FE Commissioner report dated June 2019.

Richard Atkins’ team was sent into Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College after leaders asked the government for emergency funding to enable it to meet staff salaries and other operating costs, because its cash was “exhausted”.

His report said the college is “relatively small and lacks the critical mass to be sustainable on a stand-alone basis” and it can only continue operations with exceptional funding from the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

“The principal has not properly discharged her responsibilities as accounting officer”

During the commissioner’s enquiries, the college’s former principal, Jenny Singleton, claimed that she had relied on the previous finance director to “advise her if the college was in financial difficulty and she took comfort from the ESFA financial health grade and satisfactory audit opinions”.

“She claims that the substantial cash balances provided by asset sales masked the underlying true position of the college,” Atkins’ report said.

“In fact, the ongoing deficits and diminishing reserves had been clearly evidenced in the financial statements and management accounts over a period of several years.”

It added that she has “failed to make proper enquiry” and has not “properly discharged her responsibilities as accounting officer”.

Singleton left the college shortly after Atkins’ intervention in June. The previous finance director also left the college earlier this year after “inaccuracies and inadequacies in his reporting came to light”.

Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College’s former chair, David Lambrick, who left earlier this year after being at the college as a governor since October 2011, came in for similar criticism.

“He advised that he had accepted the principal’s and finance director’s assurances as to the college’s financial strength and had taken comfort with what appeared to be substantial reserves,” today’s report said.

“He noted and gave weight to the ESFA financial health grade and unqualified audit opinions and had not identified the underlying financial position developing over a period of years.

“He accepts full responsibility for his personal failings and the collective failure of the governing body to fulfil its fiduciary duty.”

The report concludes that financial matters, strategic leadership and financial oversight have been “seriously lacking for several years” and forecasts have been “over-optimistic”.

A spokesperson for the college said that since the FE Commissioner visit in June, the deputy principal Sharon Burton has taken on the role of acting principal and Alison Hewitt is the new chair of governors.

“We are working closely with the ESFA and FE Commissioner team to explore solutions for the college, and the staff will continue as always, to focus on the delivery of high quality educational provision for the local communities that we serve,” she added.

In an accompanying letter to today’s report, the FE minister Lord Agnew said: “It is clear that there has been a serious failure of leadership, with wholly inadequate financial management.

“The governing body has also failed in its fiduciary duty to monitor the college’s financial position and to effectively challenge leaders and hold them to account.”

Atkins’ report said governors have “not understood their responsibilities with regard to insolvency” and should receive immediate training to remedy this.

“It is clear that there has been a serious failure of leadership”

As reported by FE Week in July, Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College’s was handed a financial health notice to improve by the ESFA.

The college generated a £3 million deficit in 2017/18. A £7 million drop in income, which was blamed on a declining student intake and funding reductions, took the college from £15.6 million in 2010/11 to £8.3 million in 2017/18.

In order to make up for this shortfall, the college sold land to the Department for Education in 2017 for £6.3 million, to build two new free schools.

Atkin’s report said there is a “significant deficit” forecast for the current year.

The post-16 area review for the college recommended it convert to an academy and join a multi-academy trust.

However, the college instead proposed it join a federation supported by Liverpool Hope University, a move that was endorsed by the ESFA.

Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College operates from two campuses in Stockport. It is rated grade three by Ofsted.

Atkins’ report did note that with the exception of apprenticeships, the quality of provision at the college, across both sites, is “good”.



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3 Comments

  1. David Priestly

    Whilst the ESFA Policy is to send in the FEC enforcement team – is now a College ‘asking for help’ – in FEC language? ‘you are deliberate failures and have misused public funds (whether they are public or not) and we will publicly shame you’.

    Where is the line and the opportunity to constructively respond? FE week reports what they see. It is not necessarily the media’s fault – although easy to blame. They print what they see. Is this good for the people that work in FE or other public sectors, or are they content to allow the vilification of those that make mistakes and have to disappear to survive. Or are people thinking – keep quiet, it could be us next?……….

  2. Jason Sharp

    Yes, it is clear that there has been a serious failure of leadership, with wholly inadequate financial management.
    Yes, there is a financial short fall.
    Yes, the people responsible have been named and shamed.
    Yes, leadership has changed and they are now doing a good job.
    Yes, the surviving governors are being trained.
    BUT
    How much has the college lost through government cuts and underfunding?
    Why has no action been taken against those that have made such costly mistakes?
    Becoming an academy or being taken over by a large college does not automatically improve things?
    This is a political decision based on the marketisation of education.
    Show us the details?
    Show us the funding?
    Show us how savings will be made without cuts to staff or provision?
    The proposed take over college already has a track record of cuts, contract changes and redundancies.
    Prove this is not a cut price sell off just to ensure the MP can say there is still a college with the name Cheadle & Marple nominally attached to it!
    What about some investigatory journalism from ‘FE Week’ rather than publishing whitewash statements.

  3. Whilst it was essential to clarify the true financial situation of this educational institution, the likely solution seems to pay little attention to the potential disruption to students participating in crucial A-level courses. I note that Trafford Group currently only offers A-level courses on Maths and Physics at the Altrincham Campus. Are scale economics rather than student attainment the priority at EFSA and Trafford Group?