What we can learn from the sad story of Hadlow College

8 Jun 2019, 5:00

Many of the recommendations in the long-awaited report from Philip Augar should be implemented now to protect the future of FE, says Sam Parrett

FE Week billed it the “biggest FE story of the decade” (May 23), but the news that Hadlow College had been put into administration is also one of the saddest the sector has seen for some time.

These have been dark times for further education recently, so the publication of the long-awaited report by Philip Augar could not have come along at a better moment.

The report is the first government-backed review into FE and higher education across all post-18 education. It shines a light on many important issues, making welcome recommendations for ministers to take forward to enable FE to thrive.

It’s clear that every college in the country is operating in tough financial conditions and it’s certainly not an easy time for any of us. Yet we all work hard to find ways round the challenges because we all know that FE matters, so the call for a re-balancing of spending between further and higher education should give us all reasons to cheer.

Augar’s recognition of the huge economic and social benefits that our sector delivers is also welcome. FE, after all, gives opportunities to people of all ages and from all walks of life to meet their learning and career goals. This in turn benefits social mobility and economic growth, so it’s encouraging to see Augar noting FE’s impact on wider society.

It’s also right that the government should not provide access to an unlimited pot of money to continuously bail out poorly run organisations. That said, the implications of an FE college being put into education administration are huge and go way behind the financial, as Hadlow painfully illustrates.

Hadlow has been part of many people’s lives: from farming open-days, to the setting up of a free school to meet local rural demand for primary places to “outdoor classrooms” in its extensive rural setting. Students and staff are spread across campuses in Kent and southeast London, so the insolvency decision will reverberate far and wide.

Take this huge resource away and a gaping hole in the landscape will appear. I am a local resident and the college matters to many in my community, including my neighbours and the families of my children’s friends.

The Augar report could not have come along at a better time

Hadlow needs to become a beacon of success once again for the local community; I have high hopes of such an outcome from the FE commissioner as the guardian of all that is good and is to be celebrated about the sector.

Sadly, there is a danger that the Hadlow debacle puts FE at risk of returning to a more shackled existence after a decade in which it has enjoyed a certain amount of freedom and flexibility. Could the era of increased independence for colleges be at an end?

One can only hope not because while mistakes have clearly been made, we know that FE matters and that, in most regards, it works. Don’t take my word for it; read the Augar report and its recommendations, which should be implemented swiftly and efficiently.

This includes conferring a protected title on colleges, providing FE with dedicated capital investment and an increase in core funding for 18-year-olds.

We must also hope for a more streamlined strategy to be developed across HE and FE, which will protect our sector in the longer term. Perhaps then, the true value of a college like Hadlow and many others like it, will be fully understood and preserved.

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